Notwithstanding the White House meeting on immigration reform and commitments by the likes of Senators Reid (D-NV) and Schumer (D-NY) to get something done in Congress this year, the momentum for immigration reform action does not feel much like a juggernaut.  In the Washington Post, Tamar Jacoby of ImmigrationWorks (an employers group advocating immigration reform) and Jorge Castenada (Mexico’s foreign secretary from 2000 to 2003 under Vicente Fox) described President Obama’s position on the content of immigration reform as “studiously vague.”

If there is no action in Congress, don’t think that there’s nothing happening on immigration that should concern nonprofits that believe in human rights and community building, that realize that most of our communities have immigrants in their midst (even if they somehow fail to see them), that realize that the vast majority of us are immigrants, the children of immigrants, or the descendants of immigrants.Immigration legislation is burbling through the agendas of states legislatures, counties, and municipalities.  According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, there were 1,562 bills on immigration introduced in and 240 passed by state legislatures in 2007 and 1,305 introduced and 205 passed in 2008.  Is that evidence of things slowing down?  Not a bit.  In the first quarter of 2009 alone, there were 1,040 bills related to immigrants and refugees introduced.  In the first two quarters of 2009, there were more than 1,400 bills introduced, that is, more in six months of 2009 than in the entire previous year.

Since it is early in 2009, not many of these immigration-related bills have been enacted, but there is plenty of experience from laws enacted in 2008 to provide pointers for nonprofit legislative advocacy and engagement:

  • Missouri in 2008 authorized training for state highway patrol officers to enforce federal immigration laws (exactly the policy that most local police oppose having to do) and prohibited “sanctuary” policies.
  • Both South Carolina and Missouri passed laws prohibiting unauthorized immigrants from receiving many public benefits, excepting specifically enumerated health services primarily.
  • Also in 2008, South Carolina passed a law prohibiting unauthorized immigrants from attending state colleges or qualifying for in-state tuitions and state-provided scholarships or loans (Georgia largely did the same)

Particularly disturbing is Oklahoma’s enactment in May 2009 of “Juli’s Law,” requiring DNA testing of every suspect arrested in a felony case involving another person, that is, crimes such as rape, sexual assault, battery, domestic battery, kidnapping, and burglary.  The law is named after Juli Busken, a student at the University of Oklahoma who was murdered in 1996, whose murderer was caught due to DNA evidence in 2004.  Oklahoma’s bill, S.1102, added a variety of misdemeanors to the DNA harvesting, such as assault and battery, domestic abuse, stalking, possession of a controlled dangerous substance, outraging public decency, resisting arrest, and peeping tom.  But the author of the bill, Republican State Senator Jonathan Nichols, added an additional requirement:  collecting DNA from “illegal aliens” who are arrested in Oklahoma to be subsequently deported.

Realize that many of these immigrant and refugee provisions are embedded in broader pieces of legislation, of interest to all nonprofits, not simply those with immigrant or refugee tags.  Check the generic content of the laws:

  • Education laws addressing in-state tuition eligibility, scholarships, and ESL program availability 
  • Employment laws concerning  employer sanctions and penalties regarding hiring undocumented or unauthorized immigrants, eligibility for unemployment benefits, etc.
  • Law enforcement legislation concerning local and state responsibilities for arresting and detaining immigrants for violation often of federal immigration law
  • Public benefit laws about immigrants’ eligibility for public services and benefits

These aren’t by any stretch of the imagination “special population” issues.  These aren’t “narrow” immigrant issues, but societal issues, human rights protections for immigrants living and working in our communities.  There is plenty of work here for nonprofits of all purposes, interests, and demographics.