How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

How past lessons can benefit states, localities if immigration reform happens

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If Congress were to approve a path to legal status for immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally, would state and local governments be prepared to handle the related workload? They can at least look to previous legalization programs for guidance, a new report suggests.

A new nationwide legalization plan may not materialize for years to come, if ever.

But according to the new report from Pew Charitable Trusts, state and local policymakers can look to the lessons of two legalization programs: the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, whose legalization component is remembered as "amnesty," and the ongoing Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which since August 2012 has allowed young people who came to the U.S. as minors to apply for temporary legal status and work permits.

While the federal government created them, both of these programs have required state and local involvement, for example, as applicants seek out necessary documents or civics classes. Young applicants applying for DACA have flooded school districts with requests for transcripts as they try to prove their length of stay in the U.S.. And when applicants for the 1986 amnesty had to take English and civics courses, states received federal grant funding to offset the cost of these services.

Some state and local jurisdictions have responded to demand from DACA applicants with online instructions for transcripts-seekers and other services. Initiatives like these are a training of sorts, said Pew's Michele Waslin during a media teleconference Wednesday.

"States are already beginning to prepare themselves for a future legalization process," Waslin said.

But if there were another massive legalization program like the 1986 amnesty, the demand would be unprecedented. Almost 3 million immigrants obtained amnesty then, but there are now an estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S.

Many of these immigrants no longer live in traditional receiving states, either. In 1986, the top five states in which immigrants eligible for amnesty lived were California, Texas, New York, Illinois and Florida. The same five states top the list for deferred action applicants, but there are also non-traditional states lower down on the list, like Georgia, North Carolina and Washington.

According to the report, some of the critical roles that states have taken on during the implementation of federal programs like IRCA and DACA are:

  • Outreach and public education. States and localities may inform potential applicants about programs and provide information about the application process.
  • Documentation. State and local governments may be the source of the documentation that applicants need to meet certain eligibility requirements, including presence in the United States for a defined period and proof of educational attainment.
  • Education. State and local institutions are likely to be the source of English language and U.S. history and civics education, as well as other specified education that applicants may need to qualify for a legalization program.
  • Protection from fraudulent or predatory providers of immigration legal services. States have played a prominent role in protecting noncitizens from fraudulent activities targeting them and promising legal status for a fee—a practice that has historically occurred when the federal government has announced a legalization or immigration relief program or even when there have been rumors of a possible new legalization program.

The report concludes that if the U.S. were to enact a new legalization program - which is not a given at this point - the roles played by states and localities would largely be determined by whatever rules are set: eligibility requirements, application deadlines and so forth. But it will pay for state and local officials to be prepared.

View the entire report here.

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