States Tackle Immigration Legislation

Arizona's immigration law has gotten a lot of flack, but some analysts say other states are considering measures as well. Anne Morse, policy analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures, offers her insight.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

DON GONYEA, host:

And I'm Don Gonyea.

Arizona's controversial, new immigration law is scheduled to take effect this week. And while that law has received the most attention, there's been a huge increase in the amount of legislation related to immigration across the country over the past few years.

For an overview of what states have been doing, we contacted Anne Morse. She's a policy analyst who tracks this issue for the National Conference of State Legislatures. We asked her about the spike in activity at the state level.

Ms. ANNE MORSE (National Conference of State Legislatures): Well, what I find fascinating is that state legislatures are not leaving the issue on the table. This is something that Congress looked at very seriously in 2006 and 2007, and then apparently has walked away from the table.

In the meantime, we are seeing peak levels of interest. Since 2006, we had 570 bills introduced. The following year, it nearly tripled - to 1,562. And now, we're seeing in the range of 1,300 to 1,500 every year, where states are considering bills related to immigrants and immigration.

GONYEA: So states say they are filling a void left by federal inaction. That's accurate, you think?

Ms. MORSE: That's what I hear when I talk to lawmakers, is that we really want the federal government to act, but in the meantime, we have to deal with what's on our doorstep.

GONYEA: A lot of states are imitating Arizona, and not just states with big immigrant populations, not even border states.

Ms. MORSE: Well, what we keep telling folks is that this is a 50-state issue. Every single state in session this year considered bills related to immigrants. And again, it's across the board. It's looking at employer sanctions, or looking at verification for benefits, or trying to provide English to legal immigrants. It doesn't require being a border state for someone to look in their community and say, this group needs attention.

GONYEA: Some states also seem to be bucking the trend and have actually taken steps to provide more services for immigrants. Ten states have passed laws to allow undocumented college students to pay in-state tuition. That's one example. Some have expanded access to state-funded health benefits. What's going on there?

Ms. MORSE: Well, back in 1996, the federal government created a welfare law that picked up from state examples to try to improve the welfare system. At the same time, they decided they would finance it by taking money from legal immigrant populations - legal immigrants and refugees.

State governments said, this does not seem fair to us. They're going to need assistance, and the federal government is the one who allows them in the country. So we're just trying to say, let's work with each other on trying to make sure they succeed and make sure that they're financing to make sure that the services are available to them.

When the federal government passed the welfare law, they attempted to cut cash assistance, medical assistance, food stamps for people who are legally in the country. And states had to step up and try to help those people who were shut out from the federal benefit programs.

GONYEA: So it's still considered an immigration-related law but in this case, focusing on those who are in the country, in the state, legally.

Ms. MORSE: Correct. I like to point out some of the positive examples, so to speak, in this year's report. We look at Arizona, because it is getting the most attention and it's being considered by a judge right now. But nearby states are also addressing immigration issues, such as Oklahoma.

Oklahoma created this very interesting law that looks at human trafficking and says, we want to make sure that people who are here within the country who are being trafficked, from overseas who are being trafficked, and we want to make sure that there are state penalties and that there's assistance to victims. And I think that's a very nice example of how states are being responsive.

GONYEA: Is all of this action on the part of the states something that you think will motivate the Congress and the federal government to go where it hasn't been inclined to go?

Ms. MORSE: I mean, ultimately, we're looking at public safety issues. We're looking at economic issues. The employers are looking for workers.

For example, within the health sector, one in four doctors today is foreign born. We're going to see an increased demand in that particular sector, and we'd like to figure out a way to make sure that there's legal ways for people to come in and contribute to our economy and our society.

GONYEA: Anne Morse is a policy analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures. She joined us from Louisville, Kentucky.

Thank you.

Ms. MORSE: Thank you, Don. It was a great pleasure.

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