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Arizona senate votes on SB1070 (AP)

States Fill Immigration Vacuum Left By Federal Inaction

Jul 28, 2010

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The U.S. government's argument against Arizona's controversial immigration law may be that controlling immigration is a federal power that states have no right under the U.S. Constitution to usurp.

But states have to deal with the very real consequences of federal action or inaction when it comes to both legal and illegal immigrants. In recent years, the federal response to the nation's illegal immigration problem is best described as inaction.

So states have taken it on themselves to fill the vacuum left by the federal government's failure to reach a comprehensive fix of the nation's broken immigration system.

In a recent report, the National Conference of State Legislatures said 44 of the 46 states whose legislatures were in regular session in 2010 passed laws dealing with immigration.

NPR's Don Gonyea talked with Anne Morse, an NCSL policy analyst, on Morning Edition for an overview of what states are doing.

An excerpt of their conversation:

MORSE: 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.

DON: States say they are filling a void by federal inaction. That's accurate?

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

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

MORSE: Well, what we keep telling folks is this is a 50-State issue. Every single state in session this year considered bills related to immigrants. Again, it's across the board. It's looking at employer sanctions, 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 to say "This group needs attention..."

The federal government has a history of leaving states holding the bag on immigration issues, Morse said.

For instance, in 1996 when President Bill Clinton signed landmark welfare reform into law, one group the legislation hammered was legal, repeat, legal immigrants as lawmakers and Clinton sought to limit spending as part of the overhaul.

MORSE: ... When the federal government passed the welfare law, they attempted to cut cash assistance, medical assistance, food stamps, for people who were 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.

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