States to Watch: The Immigration Battle Takes Shape

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Opponents of Arizona's new immigration law listen during a protest outside the state capitol building on April 25, 2010 in Phoenix, Arizona.

The Alabama State Senate yesterday passed legislation to crack down on illegal legislation. The measure, which is similar in tone to Arizona's controversial SB 1070, already passed the House once. It now returns to the House for final approval before heading to the governor's desk for signature.

The national immigration discussion is also well underway. Republican hopefuls for the 2012 presidential nomination have been laying out their opinions on the issue, and President Obama signaled his readiness to renew conversation this week by convening religious, political and business leaders to the White House to talk about federal-level immigration reform.

Driving this interest is a national urgency to deal with the issue, but also a growing awareness of the electoral power of immigrants. The new Census numbers clearly show that more than half of the growth in the population since 2000 was due to an increase in the Hispanic population, which now compromises sixteen percent of the total U.S. population. Additionally, the Asian population grew faster than any other major race group. While these categories measure race rather than national origin, it remains clear that the United States continues to be a nation of immigrants. 

Martine Apodaca, of the National Immigration Forum, says these numbers may have serious political influence.

“One of the things that came out of the new Census numbers was you had a 43 percent growth since 2000 in Latinos. They now represent over 10 percent of the citizen adult population in eleven states, and 5-10 percent in fourteen other [states], so [there are] twenty-five states where you have this huge growth in Latino voters.”

Yet as the country moves towards the next election, anti-immigration legislation continues to spin through the states in the wake of the recent federal immigration reform collapse. Apodaca believes these state-level acts may have repercussions, which play out at the federal level during the election.  

“What I think is interesting about that, is, how do you assemble a majority -  whether that’s an electoral majority or a state majority - to win an election, when you’re pushing legislation that really alienates a huge section of the electorate?”

Federal failure to deliver

As 2010 ended without comprehensive immigration reform at a federal level, states have struggled to define for themselves the best policy to deal with immigration. The defeat of the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act during the last days of the lame-duck Senate was a blow to the attempt to create a comprehensive national immigration reform policy. 

Apodaca believes that unless politicians become more forceful in protecting the rights of immigrants, they stand to lose supporters. “Whether things like that end up moving is going to influence the debate and influence how people view each of the parties. I think that the Democrats have their own problems — with the Latino electorate in particular — because one of the signature promises that President Obama made in 2007 and 2008 was that immigration reform was going to be one of the first things he tackled, and he has so far failed to deliver.“ 

The states to watch

While Arizona SB 1070-style legislation has been defeated in Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming, Kentucky and South Dakota, and seems likely to meet a similar end in Kansas, state after state continues to introduce similar measures.

In Mississippi, Senate Bill 2179, which would compel local law enforcement officials to check a person’s immigration status if they stop someone for any reason, passed the Mississippi state House and Senate in different versions but died March 29th when the two failed to reach an agreement by the deadline imposed. 

Louisiana filed House Bill 59 for the April 25 regular session to restrict the hiring, transporting or granting of public benefits to illegal immigrants in the state.  Rep. Joe Harrison, R-Napoleonville told the Times-Picayune that he would be going all out this year” to pass the bill, despite unsuccessful efforts in the past. 

Other states to watch as the election draws nearer are going to be South Carolina, Oklahoma, Georgia, Indiana, and Florida. In all of these cases, the immigrant population is predominantly Latino. 


Apodaca says any legislation to come out of Oklahoma is likely to "look a lot like Arizona’s bill.”

In Oklahoma, where immigrants are drawn by jobs in the meat-packing and agricultural sector, there are three immigration bills currently in the Legislature. House Bill 1446, the most-likely of the three to pass, defines the transporting undocumented immigrants as "human trafficking", establishes as unlawful for anyone unlawfully in the country to apply for work, allows local law enforcement to determine a person's immigration status, and denies in-state college tuition rates to illegal immigrants.

South Carolina

The South Carolina senate recently passed Arizona-style legislation allowing law enforcement to detain anyone who does not present a valid ID and check their immigration status, as long as the person had already been detained for another reason, such as a traffic stop.

The legislation also calls for creation of an Illegal Immigration Enforcement Unit in the South Carolina Department of Public Safety.

In addition the bill included a provision to tax wire transfers out of the country, but that portion was overturned. Senators added the wire transfer fee as a way to tax illegal immigrants sending money back home but met opposition from politicians who worried the tax might hurt military families. 


Georgia recently saw a huge growth in its Latino population, and is now flirting with being 40 percent minority state. Lawmakers there are currently trying to work out two new bills to enhance immigration enforcement. House Bill 87 and Senate Bill 40 both expand law enforcement powers to detain and question people about their immigration status and employers to use a free federal program called E-Verify in order to confirm the immigration status of every new hire.


In Indiana Senate Bill 590 passed the Senate and is now working its way through the House.  In addition to Arizona-like requirements that local law enforcement question peole's immigration status, the bill also mandates that only English may be spoken in public meetings, that public documents may be written in English only, that state employees only provide services in English while working, and that all government email be written in English only.  The bill also calls on the office of management and budget "to calculate the costs of illegal aliens to Indiana and make a written request to the Congress of the United States to reimburse the state for those costs."

Said Apodaca, "The interesting thing about Indiana is now that the Democrats have come back to the state after fleeing to prevent a quorum, the legislation that passed in the Senate could get a vote.  What’s interesting about that is you have a governor there who is thinking about running for president. What he does, and the message he sends to the rest of the party is going to be consequential, one way or another.”


In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott’s was voted into office on a platform which included a pledge to bring Arizona-style immigration law to Florida. The legislation currently pending is not quite as harsh as Arizona's but similar.   probably won’t happen, but a House committee voted Thursday to bring him the next best thing.

The new Florida immigration reform plan would require police to check the immigration status of a person who is under arrest or is the subject of a criminal investigation. Senate Bill 2040 originally required that every law enforcement agency in the state be required to enforce federal immigration laws and to check the immigration status of anyone stopped or questioned. Changes made in the Senate Judiciary committee eased the requirements on local law enforcement.Like Georgia and Arizona's legislation, the bill requires that employers use E-Verify to check the immigration status of any new employee or contractor. 

Florida attracts immigrants in search of work with in its tourism and agriculture industries, and Apodaca says is slightly more vulnerable to public opinion as a result of their reliance on the tourist industry.  “What is the message that it sends to the rest of the world?... Is it going to be good for the tourist industry, I think that Arizona’s example says no, because of the enormous number of cancelations in conventions and tourist who wont go to the state anymore because of the negativity around the law.. I don’t know that that’s a message that Florida wants to send.”