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New Report Finds States More Active in Immigration Legislation, Underscores Need for Federal Action from New Congress

Washington, D.C.– A new report from the Bipartisan Policy Center finds that states are increasingly enacting immigration-related laws in the absence of federal congressional action, creating a complex patchwork of disparate rules across the country. The report, An Imgration Patchwork in the States, notes that this state-level approach reflects much of the national partisanship existing on the issue and creates widely divergent living experiences for immigrants. However, there are some areas of convergence that may signal places where bipartisanship can work at the federal level.

The report, based on an analysis of data compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), finds that states have enacted a total of 2,100 immigration laws on a range of issues since 2005, with 49 of 50 states passing laws during that timeframe. California, Virginia, Utah, Illinois, and Arizona enacted the most laws between 2005 and 2017, with California passing the most state-based immigration legislation.

While Democratic-led governments tended to enact more laws promoting immigrant integration and extending benefits to non-citizen populations and Republican-led governments tended to enact more laws focused on enforcement, the report also finds that both Democratic and Republican state governments responded to statewide needs for workforce, creating a tension between national factors—including national party platforms on immigration—and regional factors.

Further, there were regional diversions from national party orthodoxy. For example, all-Democratic state governments in the south have passed more stringent laws while mountain-state all-Republican governments have passed more integration-based laws.

“Our study found that partisanship did create and reinforce the divides in the types of immigration laws that Democratic and Republican state governments have passed since 2005,” said Cristobal Ramón, immigration policy analyst at BPC. “However, regional and local factors blunted the impact of this partisanship, creating spaces where Democratic and Republican governments could pass similar laws in areas like workforce development. These findings suggest that areas of bipartisan agreement exist at the state level even as the national immigration debate has become more polarized over time.”

In the wake of the midterm election, this report underscores the growing influence of state governments in the immigration debate, while stressing the importance of federal congressional action on immigration. The report highlights key areas of consensus on immigration at the state level. Newly elected national lawmakers could use these points of agreement to guide the development of broader bipartisan immigration reform that can pass.

“As Washington has continued to be deadlocked on fixing any part of our immigration system, states are increasingly being pulled into the debate, and in increasingly polarized ways,” said Theresa Cardinal Brown, director of immigration and cross-border policy at BPC. “There are some areas of bipartisanship, but until Congress acts to address the broader issues, states will continue to address the issue in ways that diverge according to their constituent needs.”