U.S. Cities Face Legal Challenges, and All 50 States Try Their Hand at Making Immigration-related Laws
Cities and states taking immigration matters into their hands—a trend that began in 2006 in response to federal-level failure (see Issue #1: Political Paralysis: The Failure of U.S. Immigration Reform)—only gained momentum in 2007. Since the town of Hazleton, Pennsylvania passed its Illegal Immigrant Relief Act (IIRA) in July 2006, approximately 90 localities have proposed more than 100 similar IIRA ordinances that would sanction employers and landlords, and at least 35 have passed.
But cities face an uphill legal battle. In Escondido, California; Valley Park, Missouri; and Farmers Branch, Texas, courts have temporarily blocked or permanently barred these ordinances from going into effect.
And this past July, in the first such case that has gone to trial, a U.S. District Court judge struck down the Hazleton law on various constitutional and statutory grounds. The case is on appeal, and may potentially reach the U.S. Supreme Court.
Issue No. 7 of Top Ten of 2007
In addition to the legal obstacles, the fiscal and economic impact of these ordinances is gaining attention. In September, the township of Riverside, New Jersey, rescinded its Hazleton-type ordinance, citing the fiscal burden of defending it.
Prince William County, Virginia, a fast-growing suburban area southwest of Washington, DC, passed a narrower resolution in October to deny some county services to unauthorized immigrants, and to give local police increased powers to check their status.
A lawsuit challenging Prince William County's policy has been filed. The Washington Post has reported that a number of Hispanic immigrants, both legal and unauthorized, have left the county since July (see Ones to Watch: New Settlement Patterns), and that businesses catering to immigrants have experienced losses.
The action at the state level reached a new milestone in 2007. For the first time, all 50 states introduced a measure regulating immigrants. Over 1,000 such measures have been introduced nationwide; 182 have become law in 43 states.
States' bills have focused overwhelmingly on employment and driver's licenses and other forms of ID, but also on health, education, law enforcement, public benefits, human trafficking, and voting.
Not all state and local measures are punitive towards immigrants. California, for example, enacted a new law in October that makes it illegal for cities to require landlords to check the legal status of tenants, making it the first state in the country with such a law. Over the summer, New Haven, Connecticut, began offering municipal ID cards to residents regardless of status. In November, San Francisco passed a local law allowing unauthorized immigrants to obtain municipal identification cards.
Perhaps the biggest state-level immigration controversy erupted in late October, when New York Governor Elliot Spitzer's plan to offer driver's license to all state residents regardless of legal status spilled into the Democratic presidential debates. Under intense political pressure, Spitzer abandoned the plan altogether in mid-November. The frustration with lack of progress on immigration reform at federal level guarantees that legal and political scrutiny of laws at state and local levels will continue in 2008.