Immigration Reform 2013: State Governors Aren't Even Mentioning Reform


President Obama will deliver his fifth State of the Union address on Tuesday. Undoubtedly, immigration reform will play a prominent role in the speech, since Obama has made immigration reform a priority for his second term. After a group of senators – the Gang of Eight – announced a bipartisan effort to complete an immigration reform bill, Obama followed up by claiming "a broad consensus is emerging" and "now’s the time" to replace an "out of date and badly broken" system.

All of the vested parties in Washington appear committed to enacting comprehensive immigration reform legislation this year. Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) has announced his support for a bipartisan effort underway in the House of Representatives, and the House Judiciary Committee has held its first public debate on immigration reform.

But one of the vested parties outside of Washington, D.C., has conspicuously remained silent on the issue. Forty-four of the nation’s governors have given State of the State addresses, while only three have mentioned immigration. Their relative silence on immigration reform in their speeches seems incongruous with the zeal in which they are signing immigration enforcement legislation. It will be difficult, if not impossible, to enact comprehensive immigration reform if the nation’s governors and state legislatures do not vocalize their support for the effort. In his State of the Union address, it might be prudent for Obama to remind the governors that they need to get on board and be part of the solution by articulating their support for immigration reform.

Two of the governors to mention immigration policy govern states (Arizona and New Mexico) bordering Mexico. It is not surprising that Governor Jan Brewer (R-Ariz.) would have strong feelings on immigration. Arizona's SB 1070, the controversial "show me your papers" immigration legislation, has become the model for immigration enforcement legislation throughout the nation. In passing the law, Brewer has inserted herself into the national conversation on immigration.

In this year’s speech Brewer challenged the federal government to make border security its "first priority." She called on Obama to "finish the job" and "fulfill [his] promise to the American people." Brewer pledged to work with all "fair-minded people" on immigration reform, but not until the border is secure. Republicans have made enhanced border security a key deliverable of immigration reform; however, to date, there is no plan that details how to measure the objective.

In her address, Governor Susana Martinez (R-N.M.) called for an end to magnets that support "human trafficking, fraud and crime rings." She asked the state legislature to "repeal the law that gives driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants." New Mexico is one of four states that allow illegal immigrants to legally drive (along with Illinois, Washington and Utah), and the governor’s preference indicates the need to have a standard federal policy on certain matters concerning immigration. Illinois just passed a law allowing illegal immigrants to be issued a license that cannot be used for identification purposes. So, in theory, an illegal immigrant can legally drive in Illinois and be given a government ID, but it doesn’t identify who they are, and they can be arrested in Arizona for having improper papers. To challenge Governor Martinez, a driver’s license is not much of a magnet if it can’t be used for identification purposes but can be used to levy fines, penalties and fees.

While Martinez was calling for an end to magnets, Governor Pat Quinn (D–Ill.) was touting Illinois’ implementation of magnet programs. In his State of the State speech, Quinn explained that driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants make our "roads safer and our families stronger." He cited as an accomplishment a scholarship program for dreamers – high school graduates of immigrant families – created by the Illinois Dream Commission. Governor Martinez is a proponent of the DREAM Act, but only as part of a full reform package. In an interview with Newsweek’s Andrew Romano, Martinez argued in support of a "DREAM Act-style pathway to citizenship," but cautioned that the DREAM Act as a standalone policy "can’t fix [immigration]."

While Governors Brewer, Martinez, and Quinn have made their views well-known, and have incorporated them into their State of the State speeches, other state houses have chosen to remain silent and work locally through their legislatures to enact immigration legislation.

Mother Jones analyzed 164 legislative bills that were submitted by the states in 2010 and 2011 and found that at least a dozen states enacted legislation that was modeled after Arizona’s law. The governors signing these laws are going to run into conflicts when the final federal package is delivered to Obama. For example, we have already seen that the states are challenging Obama’s temporary DREAM Act which requires states to issue driver's licenses to eligible illegal immigrants. The Pew Center found that at least six states, led by Governor Jan Brewer, were refusing to comply with the policy.

Obama, expressing his sentiments, stated "at this moment, it looks like there's a genuine desire to get this done soon. And that's very encouraging." Obama’s optimism is based on what appears to be a genuine desire by Congress to enact a comprehensive immigration reform package. Since the states will be in charge of enforcing the legislation, it would be nice to hear more from the governors.