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Immigration Reform Is Happening

Author: Shannon K. O'Neil, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director of the Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Program
July 11, 2014
Foreign Policy


With all the mudslinging and acrimony in Washington over unaccompanied minors and unauthorized immigrants, you might have missed it. Immigration reform has already happened -- in fact, hundreds of times. With the federal government incapacitated, states, cities, and municipalities have stepped into the fray.

In 2013 alone, 45 of the 50 state legislatures passed over 400 laws and resolutions on everything from law enforcement and employment to education and public benefits. Among this flurry were a few in the Arizona SB 1070 style -- bills making life more miserable for undocumented immigrants. These laws ranged from blocking access to health care and schools to criminalizing common activities such as driving cars or buying homes. But the majority are actually designed to find ways to integrate undocumented immigrants -- funding English language and citizenship classes and providing access to medical care and other social services.

Remember the 2008 presidential campaign debate angst over driver's licenses? Eight states passed laws opening up the DMV to undocumented immigrants. Four more gave unauthorized students the right to pay in-state tuition, bringing the number of states opening up their colleges and universities to all residents to 15. Several others established "trust laws," which ensure police won't pass undocumented migrants along to immigration authorities unless charged with or convicted of the most serious crimes. California -- granted, an outlier -- decided that undocumented immigrants can even practice law.

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