Growing State and Local Role in U.S. Immigration Policy Affects Sense of Belonging for Newcomers and Natives Alike
The United States does not have one single immigration policy. Rather, it has a patchwork of immigration laws at the federal, state, and local levels that overlap, complement each other, and sometimes are in tension. Yet while state and local policies are ostensibly designed to either restrict or grant privileges to immigrants, they also have spillover impacts on the native born. In particular, they affect senses of belonging among both groups, which psychologists Gregory M. Walton and Shannon T. Brady describe as “a general inference, drawn from cues, events, experiences, and relationships, about the quality of fit or potential fit between oneself and a setting.”
These feelings are nebulous and difficult to measure. But in interviews, native- and foreign-born residents of states with different types of immigration policies described how these measures affected their sense of belonging. The most acute effect, of course, is on immigrants targeted by the policies, especially those who are unauthorized, who are either ineligible for or prevented from accessing certain benefits. The knock-on effect on feelings of belonging among the U.S. born is often overlooked, yet can have wide-reaching impacts on individuals’ wellbeing, their engagement with others, their participation in the political process, and, at a larger level, the functioning of democracy as a whole.
This article, based on the authors’ research conducted for the 2021 book States of Belonging: Immigration Policies, Attitudes, and Inclusion, assesses how subfederal immigration policy affects foreign- and native-born residents’ feelings of belonging, by examining residents of Arizona and New Mexico. Regardless of where they were born, Latinos in Arizona felt a diminished sense of belonging because of restrictive state-level laws, as did most native-born White, non-Latino residents, although their partisan affiliation significantly impacted their feelings. In New Mexico, where policies tend to expand access to state services regardless of immigration status, residents reported high feelings of belonging regardless of their nativity. State immigration policies had an independent effect in causing differences in feelings of belonging. The number of subfederal immigration laws across the United States has grown dramatically in recent years, and this research suggests that this growth may have repercussions that are wider ranging than commonly understood.
The Rise of Immigration Lawmaking Beyond Washington
The current landscape of competing and overlapping immigration laws has not always been present. Previously, immigration was largely a federal domain, but since the turn of the millennium state and local governments have been more active in setting immigration policy. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, carried out by foreign nationals holding temporary visas, were one precipitant of this change, as local law enforcement was both eager to and was urged by the federal government to become more involved in policing immigration laws. In subsequent years, Congress repeatedly failed to pass major immigration legislation, leaving a power vacuum that further prompted action by state and local officials. The 2016 election of President Donald Trump was another contributor, spurring hundreds of laws designed to counteract federal restrictions.
The result has been a jumble of policies that may stoke political tensions or become subject to legal challenge. Every year since 2006, all states combined have enacted at least 45 new immigration policies, according to data from the Immigrant Climate Index, a database maintained by scholars Huyen Pham and Pham Hoang Van. These may come in the form of voter-backed propositions, executive actions by governors, or measures passed by state legislatures. But whatever the means, they amount to a growing role for subfederal governments.
Box 1. Interview Methods
This article is based on research conducted by the authors and fellow researchers comparing the feelings of belonging among foreign- and native-born residents of Arizona and New Mexico. In February and March 2016 they enlisted the ISA Group to conduct a survey with a representative sample of 1,903 native- and foreign-born Latinos and native-born non-Latino Whites in Arizona and New Mexico.
The survey included an embedded experiment in which half of respondents received information indicating that their state lawmakers were considering restrictive immigration policies; the other half were told policymakers were considering access-expanding policies. They then responded to a series of questions about what emotions these policies triggered and whether the policies would make them feel at home or want to leave the state.
The researchers followed up with in-depth interviews with 123 respondents, conducted in English and Spanish between 2017 and 2019, to provide a stronger basis for interpreting the findings. Interviews covered a range of issues, including feelings of belonging, opinions about policy, perceptions of the treatment of immigrants in the respondent’s state, and Interactions with members of other groups.
These measures can generally be grouped into two categories: There are those that are restrictive, denying immigrants (especially the unauthorized) rights and access to resources and institutions, and those that expand rights and access. Restrictive policies may, for instance, forbid unauthorized immigrants from receiving driver’s licenses, in-state college tuition, or educational funding available to native-born students, or enhance authorities’ cooperation with federal immigration enforcement. Access-expanding policies, meanwhile, might provide these types of services to individuals regardless of immigration status, or formally refuse cooperation with federal immigration law enforcement such as through "sanctuary" policies.
States and other subfederal governments have taken both approaches. Restrictive policies predominated until 2012 but then fell off. Since then, access-expanding policies have predominated, first amidst and perhaps in response to muscular immigration enforcement by the Obama administration during its first term and then in a surge during the Trump administration.
Policies in Arizona were the most restrictive as of 2020, while those in neighboring California were the most focused on expanding immigrants’ access to government resources and services. While policies tend to follow states’ overall political leanings, they are not a perfect analogue. For instance, Virginia has tended to be led by Democrats most years since 2002, yet has much more restrictive policies than Wyoming, which has had a Republican governor since 2011.
A Tale of Two States: Arizona and New Mexico
In contrast, Arizona and neighboring New Mexico are historically connected and demographically similar in many ways, but differ fundamentally in their immigration policy. Arizona voters were active in the early 2000s, approving restrictive measures to ban bilingual education for English Learners (Proposition 203 in 2000), deny bail to unauthorized immigrants accused of a felony (Proposition 100 in 2006), and prevent people without proof of immigration status from applying for state-funded services (Proposition 300 in 2006), among other measures. Arizona’s lawmakers enacted multiple similarly restrictive laws, none garnering more attention than Senate Bill (SB) 1070, a comprehensive 2010 enforcement measure mandating immigrants carry proof of legal status which state law enforcement officers could demand to see if they had a reasonable suspicion that an individual was unauthorized. The law also prevented local and state agencies from interfering with the enforcement of federal immigration laws and levied penalties on individuals who hired, sheltered, or transported unauthorized immigrants. In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down most portions of the law but upheld the provision allowing police to check individuals’ immigration status. New Mexico has enacted more inclusive policies. Since 2003, the state has allowed all residents regardless of immigration status to obtain driver’s licenses (House Bill [HB] 173), recognized medical licenses obtained abroad (SB 171), and provided unemployment benefits to several categories of noncitizens (HB 261). In 2005, Governor Bill Richardson (D) issued an executive order forbidding state law enforcement officers from asking about criminals' immigration status, and that same year the state became one of the first to extend to all immigrants in-state tuition and funding for public colleges and universities, while also prohibiting discrimination in admissions based on immigration status (SB 582).
Feelings of Belonging by State
For immigration policy to shape individuals’ feelings of belonging, people must first be aware of the policies and have some perception of their intent. Interview respondents in Arizona were more aware of their state’s policies than those in New Mexico and overwhelmingly interpreted them as restricting immigrants’ access to benefits, which might be expected given the national attention given to measures such as SB 1070. Respondents pointed to the state’s immigration policies as the primary factor in shaping their feelings of belonging.
Regardless of nativity, Latinos in Arizona felt impacted by the state’s policies in their daily lives, either directly or through the symbolic messages the policies sent. Even U.S.-born Latinos felt targeted by these policies because of their ethnicity and ties to immigrants. A 26-year-old U.S.-born woman whose parents are Mexican immigrants described her reaction when SB 1070 passed in 2010:
I just felt like there was this feeling, this very dark veil kind of feeling, like [in the] back of your throat. Everything that I did, I just started carrying and carrying this burden for all of my friends and family members that I knew that were undocumented. I kind of acquired this worry for them. And it hasn’t gone away… [I felt] just very worried and almost hopeless. And it’s like you’re yelling, trying to get your point across, but the person you’re yelling to has headphones on… They are like ignoring you, and you’re like yelling and fighting for your life.
Latinos tended to be more aware of Arizona’s immigration policies. Non-Latino Whites also reported being aware of and affected by the policies, though less directly. Political leaning played a role in respondents’ feelings: White Democrats in Arizona described a diminished sense of belonging in their state because immigration and other policies cut against their political orientation, whereas White Republicans saw immigration policies as enhancing their belonging because they lived in a state that reflected their political identity.
In New Mexico, both U.S.- and foreign-born Latinos were much less aware of the state’s access-expanding immigration policies. They described an overall sense of belonging but tied it to the history and culture of New Mexico and only loosely to policy. They noted they could navigate daily life without concern that the state was attempting to exclude them.
Access-expanding policies allowed New Mexico’s immigrants to go about everyday life without restriction due to their status. This finding matches broader research, which shows individuals tend to remember events that may have undesirable consequences for them, such as punitive immigration policies, more than other kinds of incidents. Rather, New Mexico’s status as having expanded immigrants’ access to services became more apparent when respondents compared their state to Arizona—which some did without prompting. In response to a question about how immigrants are treated, a 44-year-old female food-service worker in New Mexico who lacked legal status described in Spanish:
Every state is different and there are states that, indisputably and sadly, are really racist... I just have visited, for example, you know, Arizona… which is a really difficult place to live in for an immigrant in the last few years… Sadly, there are states that are pretty harsh with us Latinos. Thank God, I say, New Mexico is not a state like that.
Non-Latino Whites in New Mexico also articulated a sense of belonging because of the state’s general sense of openness to people from a range of backgrounds, while largely eliding references to the expanding immigration policies. Native-born White New Mexicans from across the political spectrum suggested that the state’s approach to immigration policy did not dampen their sense of belonging.
* Indicates statistically significant difference in means across the immigration policy changes (restrictive vs. access expanding). 1=Least Belonging, 5=Most Belonging.
Source: Tomás R. Jiménez, Deborah J. Schildkraut, Yuen J. Huo, and John F. Dovidio, States of Belonging: Immigration Policies, Attitudes, and Inclusion (New York: Russell Sage Foundation Press, 2021).
Do Immigration Policies Cause a Sense of Belonging?
The authors also conducted an experiment to see if the prospect of new laws cause feelings of belonging. When presented with hypothetical policies under consideration in a survey experiment, respondents tended to react based on political partisanship even more than ethnicity. When told that state lawmakers were considering adopting access-expanding policies, White Democrats and Democratic and Independent Latinos regardless of nativity expressed feeling a stronger sense of belonging, while White and U.S.-born Latino Republicans and, to a lesser degree, White Independents reported a weaker sense of belonging. Results were similar regardless of which state respondents lived in, suggesting a similar dynamic might exist elsewhere.
Figure 1. Impact of State Immigration Policies on Sense of Belonging among U.S.-Born Latinos in Arizona and New Mexico by Party, 2020
Note: 1=Least Belonging, 5=Most Belonging.
Source: Jiménez, Schildkraut, Huo, and John F. Dovidio, States of Belonging: Immigration Policies, Attitudes, and Inclusion.
The attitudes respondents articulated about access-restricting and access-expanding approaches paralleled and added texture to the results from the embedded experiment. Democrats and Independents regardless of ethnicity supported access-expanding policies because they stood to gain directly, believed the policies could help integrate immigrants, or perceived that immigration had economic benefits. Consider the following, from a 20-year-old native-born Arizona Democrat and college student of Mexican descent:
I would be happy [with access-expanding policies] because I feel like... justice would finally be served in a portion. But just because it would give everyone the same opportunities and stuff like that… I don’t feel like it would affect me negatively. Like, it would make me feel happier that those things are finally being put in place.
Still, Latino and White Democrats and Independents qualified their views, asserting that immigrants should contribute socially and economically. Take the following view from a 33-year-old New Mexico Democratic social worker and a naturalized U.S. citizen originally from Mexico:
[Access-expanding policies] would be good and bad in ways, I think. Because there’s only so much work and … because you have to support these people. They’re going to support themselves as much as they can, but they don’t have the education. I mean, I’m sure they can work, right, but they don’t have degrees … They’re coming in without much, just bare minimum-wage jobs, getting by doing whatever odds and ends types of things they’re going to be doing.
White and Latino Republicans generally opposed access-expanding policies, fearing the measures would attract immigrants who take more from the system than they deserve. Yet Republicans nonetheless asserted that unauthorized immigrants should have a pathway to legalization. The following remark from a U.S.-born 34-year-old self-described conservative Latino from New Mexico is emblematic:
We should be unwelcoming to people who are breaking the law and getting in illegally…. You just get flooded… And granted, it’s hard. I think the question should be, how do we make it easier to and shorter period of time to get a legal immigration status?
A 71-year-old White Republican business owner in New Mexico similarly supported restrictive policies as well as legalizing long-residing unauthorized immigrants:
I would support [restrictive policies], depending on how it was done. I don’t want people rounded up. I don’t think anybody really does, no matter how they characterize it even nationally. I don’t think it’s appropriate to go round up people that are here for a certain period of time. I’d like to see it done more like if you’ve been here for a number of years and can show proof of residency and proof you’ve got a job, you should be able to walk into an office somewhere and sign up for the road to citizenship.
Belonging affects the way people feel about themselves and others. Immigration policies can shape the sense of belonging felt by groups explicitly targeted by the policies as well as others. Access-expanding policies increase the sense of belonging among most groups and either have no effect or a modest negative effect on the sense of belonging among others. Restrictive policies yield a modest boost in Republicans’ feelings of belonging but diminish those sentiments for others.
While their effects on improving the sense of belonging are limited to Republicans, restrictive policies are most salient because they stick out in people’s minds and become a focus of individuals’ relationships with their state. On the other hand, access-expanding policies exist below the radar, contributing to an overall sense of belonging even if people cannot specify why. By allowing immigrants to navigate their daily lives with a sense of normality, these kinds of policies add to their sense of belonging and that of most others.
The rising number of immigration policies crafted at the state and local level in recent years may have unexpected consequences. Restrictive laws may unintentionally alienate some native-born residents, while access-expanding laws tend to produce residents’ greater feelings of belonging in their state. If what is playing out in Arizona and New Mexico is any indication, the effects of immigration policy at the federal level may be more widespread than most have assumed.
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