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State Immigration Laws Create Two Americas

Due to the inability of Congress to pass immigration reform laws on a national level, states have taken matters into their own hands.  Red states have tended to tighten immigration laws and move towards making life harder for undocumented workers and ultimately removing them from their states.  Blue states have tended to open up opportunities to undocumented immigrants such as access to higher education, driver’s licenses and official identification cards, and making it harder for them to be detected and deported.  What this has ultimately caused is a country divided in two—states that accept undocumented residents and are working towards protecting their rights and integrating them into society and the economy, and states that are working towards giving undocumented immigrants the boot.

Three years ago, Republicans took many state house victories and prompted a wave of anti-immigration policies to be passed in red states across the United States.  These policies turned local police forces into border patrols, targeting traffic stops as opportunities to identify and detain undocumented immigrants.  Judicial rulings and public backlash against these laws from all sides have mitigated many of them and restricted red states from passing harsher laws, but many families have been torn apart over routine traffic stops.  Getting behind the wheel can be the scariest thing an undocumented immigrant does.  Also, not having access to drivers licenses and legal identification impedes opening bank accounts, seeking healthcare, and mobility.

On the flipside, blue states such as California—which has the highest immigrant population the country—is doing just the opposite.  States such as New Mexico, Utah, Washington, and Colorado to name a few have now made it possible for undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses and insurance.  Many of these states have also deferred to Trust, But Verify tactics when it comes to interaction with law enforcement, which has cut drastically back on non-violent misdemeanors resulting in deportations that tear families apart.

The biggest aspect of the immigration reform debate is economics.  Red and blue states both see that illegal immigration effects economic incentives, but they disagree on whether this has a positive or a negative impact.  Blue states believe undocumented workers infuse their economies with younger workers and are overall a good thing for building a robust and stable economy.  Red states see undocumented immigrants as stealing jobs and services from American citizens.

Undocumented workers run an enormous risk of being exploited by their employers and dealing with theft and abuse in the work place.  If they come forward, they risk deportation.  This is especially prevalent in the construction industry where safety standards are overlooked and in domestic service and caretaking positions where, according to Ai-Jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, “We hear of modern day slavery cases on a regular basis.”  With the retirement of the Baby Boomer generation and the tendency of people to live longer overall, this field is expanding rapidly.

In California, the Domestic Workers Bill or Rights recently passed, making these workers eligible for overtime pay.  The state also passed legislation making it more difficult to detect workers in violation of immigration law by not requiring private businesses to run new hires through a federal program the verify the legal status of workers, E-Verify.  On the other hand, red states are doing just the opposite.

In the past few years, Latino voters have helped to push immigration reform on the national level.  Alongside this, deportation have hit record levels during these same years and have just recently started to drop.  Moving forward, employment and educational opportunities, access to healthcare, and driver’s licenses and other forms of identification will be big issues for immigration policy on the national level.  Federal inaction on immigration policy had torn the United States in two, as far as immigrants are concerned.  However, immigrant communities even in red states with harsh legislation like Alabama are surviving and sustaining.  The longer it takes for the United States congress to pass national legislation, the more divided state laws will become.

Source: Sarlin, Benjy.  “New immigration laws split America in two,” MSNBC.  December 31st, 2013.  http://www.msnbc.com/hardball/new-immigration-laws-split-america-two.