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A Call for Clarity and Compromise: The Perspective of State and Local Officials on the National Immigration Debate

Over the last 10 years, states and localities have taken an increasingly public role in the national immigration debate. Issues such as local law enforcement’s cooperation with federal immigration authorities and increasing partisan pressures have pushed more of these legislators and officials to pick a side in the national immigration debate, sometimes at the expense of the traditional consensus and compromise that was more common in state and local governments in previous years. The national immigration debate’s incursion into state and local politics also sometimes glosses over the actual immigration challenges these officials face daily, such as educating the children of immigrants and supporting the employers and industries that are sustaining their communities by hiring immigrants in addition to local workers. While many states and localities continue to find bipartisan ways to address these local challenges, state and local officials increasingly want Congress to reform the nation’s immigration laws to bring clarity to the national debate and return state and local governments to their traditional role of serving their constituents—immigrants and native-born alike.

In 2017 and 2018, the Bipartisan Policy Center hosted four roundtables with members of the National Association of Counties (NACo) and the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) to improve our understanding of these issues. The meetings, each of which had between 14 and 16 bipartisan attendees from across the country, sought to uncover areas of agreement and divergence about the immigration issues facing states and localities, including those especially relevant to both rural and urban communities. The roundtables also aimed to find messages and areas of bipartisanship at the state and local level that could resonate with federal legislators and inform the federal immigration debate.

Some of the key takeaways include:

The participants agreed that immigrants are important for their workforces, and Congress needs to reform the nation’s laws:

  • The participants said immigrants are essential to their local workforces, which cover industries ranging from agriculture and construction to health care, technology, and higher education.
  • The participants also had a common set of political challenges, including:
    • Feeling pressure from their national parties or advocacy groups to take partisan stands on immigration issues, and expressing fears about facing primary challenges from the right or left flanks of their party due to their immigration views.
    • Struggling because many of their constituents form their opinions about immigration based on a lack of information, or on misinformation, about the issue in their communities.
    • Feeling frustration over Congress’s failure to pass immigration reform and laws that protect Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, which has left states and localities with the task of addressing immigration issues locally with little clarity from Washington, D.C.

However, the participants had different experiences addressing immigrant populations in their areas and disagreed over the role that states and localities should play in immigration enforcement:

  • Some legislators and county officials from communities with fewer resources, often rural jurisdictions, said they struggle to provide social services to immigrants and to maintain their county jails.
    • In contrast, officials from states and counties with institutions and state laws that integrate immigrants (generally more urban jurisdictions) said they have more success in serving these populations and generating economic growth from their integration.
    • However, for these areas, often the challenge is gaining the trust of immigrant communities, so they feel comfortable accessing available services and supports.
  • The participants also disagreed over whether states and localities should cooperate with federal immigration authorities in enforcing the nation’s immigration laws.
    • While some participants said they view upholding the rule of law as an essential part of their roles, others stated that immigration enforcement actions prompt immigrants in their communities to avoid both working with law enforcement and accessing public benefits.
    • However, no matter their perspectives on law enforcement cooperation, most jurisdictions said they do not support the federal government’s efforts to tie federal funding to such cooperation or to threaten jurisdictions instead of collaborating with them.

Nevertheless, the participants expressed a unanimous call for Congress to address their daily challenges by taking action on immigration:

  • Participants expressed an urgent need for immigration reform that would create clarity on the way states and localities should follow the nation’s immigration laws.
  • The roundtables also showed that state and local officials and legislators offer unique perspectives that can help federal lawmakers break through partisan gridlock to pass these reforms.


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