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State Legislatures Back Off Immigration Issues in 2012

Fewer Arizona-Style Laws Written Dealing With Illegal Immigrants, Enforcement

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After a busy 2011, U.S. state legislatures passed far fewer immigration bills in 2012 as the focus shifted from controlling illegal immigrants to balancing budgets.

A study by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) found that 41 states enacted 114 bills and approved 921 resolutions dealing with immigration in the first six months of 2012. This represented a decline of 20% compared with the same period in the previous year.

The NCSL’s Immigration Policy Project concluded that legislatures backed off illegal immigration lawmaking because of their budget problems, redistricting and challenges to state laws in the courts.

“Legislators found that state budget gaps and redistricting maps took priority, consuming much of the legislative schedule,” the immigration policy group said in a report. “Perhaps more significant, state lawmakers cited pending litigation on states’ authority to enforce immigration laws as further reason to postpone action.”

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld only one of four provisions of Arizona’s immigration law -- a measure that gives law enforcement officers greater authority to ask about a person’s immigration status. Many state legislatures were holding off on immigration bills to see what the Supreme Court decided.

The Obama administration filed suit to challenge the Arizona law and those in several other states, claiming the states had usurped federal powers and that the laws would lead to profiling and civil rights violations. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer claimed victory after the Supreme Court ruling, saying the surviving provision would allow Arizona to go forward with enforcement of its law.

“After more than two years of legal challenges, the heart of SB 1070 can now be implemented in accordance with the U.S. Constitution,” Brewer said. “While we are grateful for this legal victory, today is an opportunity to reflect on our journey and focus upon the true task ahead: the implementation and enforcement of this law in an even-handed manner that lives up to our highest ideals as American citizens.”

In 2011, legislatures in 30 states introduced immigration bills that were modeled after Arizona’s groundbreaking Senate Bill 1070. Only five states (Kansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Rhode Island and West Virginia) introduced bills in 2012 and none was enacted.

Problems with the 2011 lawmaking surfaced in 2012. Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller said he was unable to defend his state’s immigration law because of the Supreme Court’s decision. In Alabama, legislators had to amend the state’s law to soften provisions that required immigrants to produce documents and imposed penalties on people who harbored or transported illegal immigrants.

For the first time in seven years, according to the NCSL report, immigration-related bills and resolutions declined sharply in the first quarter. Compared with 1,538 bills in the first quarter of 2011, only 865 bills and resolutions relating to immigrants and refugees were introduced in the first quarter of 2012, a drop of 44%.

Every State Considers Action on Immigration 

Yet, immigration-related bills were considered in every state legislature in session in 2012. The NCSL report said the other factors that contributed to the decline in the number of laws included:  “five fewer states were in session, accounting for about a third of the reduction; redistricting and state budgets took priority in some state policy discussions, with some concerns raised about the cost of taking on federal immigration responsibilities and the potential for litigation. But most significantly, legislators cited the pending ruling from the Supreme Court on the extent of states’ authority in immigration enforcement as a reason to postpone state action.”

The NCSL found that identification and driver licenses were the top issues involving lawmaking in 2012, accounting for 18% and 11%, respectively, of all immigration legislation enacted. States continued to pass laws that help pay for naturalization, and migrant and refugee programs, however. They accounted for about 25% of the immigration laws passed in the first half of 2012.

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