Reasonable State Responses to Immigration

dream act activist

While federal legislation stalls, some states are passing their own DREAM Acts. (Photo: dreamactivist/flickr)

Most of us have been transfixed by Alabama’s immigration law which surpasses all other state laws in its harshness and stringency.

The Department of Justice asked the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday to stop enforcement of Alabama’s HB 56, concerned that it could lead to racial discrimination. Advocacy groups also filed a separate appeal, citing the law’s immediate aftermath.

State immigration bills such as those passed in Alabama, Georgia and Arizona negatively impact not only immigrants and their families but society in general. They have wide-ranging externalities including lost productivity and revenues. They also have long-term implications for the well-being of our nation.

Fortunately, there are some states bucking the trend and providing more rational, productive and humane solutions to our broken immigration system.

A couple of weeks ago, Rhode Island’s Board of Governors for Higher Education, encouraged by Gov. Lincoln Chafee, approved the state’s version of the DREAM Act which will allow undocumented students to pay in-state college tuition beginning September 2012. Students without papers must show that they graduated from a Rhode Island high school which they attended for at least three years or received a GED certificate from the state. They must also sign an affidavit promising that they will pursue U.S. citizenship as soon as possible.

Last weekend, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law the second half of his state’s DREAM Act. The first half, enacted in July, sanctioned private scholarships and loans for undocumented college students. These students, with the passage of the second bill, can now pay in-state tuition rates and apply for state aid.

The state DREAM Acts of Rhode Island and California, like other state versions of the stalled federal initiative to improve the prospects of young undocumented immigrants, does not include a path to citizenship. But they do allow motivated and able young people—in whom states have already invested public education—to obtain a college degree, earn better wages, pay taxes, contribute to the economy and give back to society.

Last Thursday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order requiring state agencies to make vital forms and instructions available in the six most common non-English languages spoken in the state. State agencies including the Office of Children & Family Services, Corrections, the health department, motor vehicles and welfare agencies will now have to provide free interpretation and translation services to assist the 13 percent of New Yorkers who do not speak English as their primary language. Cuomo argued that lawsuits and legislation have failed to address the problem and that access to state services can be a matter of life and death for some immigrants.

Finally, last week, the city commissioners of Dayton, Ohio voted to turn their city into an “immigrant friendly” destination with the explicit goal of replenishing the city’s shrinking immigrant community. The “Welcome Dayton” program seeks to reduce the barriers to immigrants who want to open new businesses and thereby spur investment in immigrant neighborhoods. The initiative aims to help immigrants by providing adults with ESL and literacy courses; actively involving local youth in community building; and encouraging cross-cultural events among Dayton’s cultural and arts organizations.

In California, Rhode Island, New York and Dayton, Ohio, rather than marginalizing immigrants and treating them as scapegoats for our difficult times, government is finding ways to integrate them. These state and city leaders see their immigrant populations as economically integral and as contributing members of society. They acknowledge that immigrants are crucial to our nation’s vitality and future.

One hopes that other states will be less reactionary—ala Alabama—and follow such reasonable responses to immigration.

Originally posted on Feet in 2 Worlds, October 12, 2011.

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