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A slowdown in state immigration bills introduced, enacted

The Arizona State Capitol building in Phoenix
The Arizona State Capitol building in Phoenix
Photo by Willem van Bergen/Flickr

The recent crush of state laws related to immigration continues to slow, and just as Arizona's SB 1070 helped fuel it, the legal trajectory of the trendsetting 2010 anti-illegal immigration law has helped slow it down.

The National Conference of State Legislatures, which keeps tabs on this, announced in a report today that the number of immigration-related state laws introduced and enacted so far this year has "dropped markedly" from previous years. Between Jan. 1 and June 30 of this year, lawmakers in 46 states and the District of Columbia introduced a total of 948 bills and resolutions related to immigrants and refugees, compared with 1,592 in the first half of last year.

That is a 40 percent drop altogether. Similarly, the number of immigration-related state measures enacted has dropped: In the first half of 2012, 41 state legislatures enacted 114 immigration-related bills and adopted 92 resolutions, 20 percent fewer measures than the 257 state laws and resolutions enacted in the first half of 2011.

Why the slowdown? As SB 1070 headed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which issued its ruling in late June, a freeze of sorts went into effect. In other states that had enacted SB 1070-style laws since 2010, judges put decisions on hold while they awaited a decision, and it appears a similar effect was felt in statehouses. From a summary of the report:

Multiple reasons exist for the decline in immigration-related legislation. Budget gaps and redistricting maps took priority, consuming the bulk of legislative agendas. Perhaps more significant, state lawmakers cited pending litigation on states’ authority to enforce immigration laws, such as the Arizona v. United States decision handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court in June, as further reason to postpone action.

As the nation awaited the Arizona v. United States ruling, state omnibus immigration legislation  slowed significantly.  Unlike 2011, when 30 state legislatures introduced more than 50 omnibus bills similar to Arizona’s, only five states – Kansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Rhode Island and West Virginia – did so this year, and none were enacted. Alabama was the only state to act on an omnibus bill in 2012, amending its 2011 law.

While state legislators stopped pushing omnibus-style bills, measures related to enforcement and identification, such as driver's license bills, continued to make up a sizable percent of the laws enacted. And laws related to employment, in particular laws seeking use of the federal E-Verify work authorization system, also continue to be popular, in part because the U.S. Supreme Court upheld an E-Verify related Arizona measure last year. Six states, among them Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Michigan, New Hampshire and West Virginia, enacted laws related to E-Verify, pushing the number of states with such laws on the books to 19 now.

In its June ruling on SB 1070, the Supreme Court struck down three contested provisions of the Arizona law, but upheld its most controversial - a provision empowering local cops to check for immigration status - with the caveat that it could still face legal challenges once implemented.

Whether the ruling will revive the trend seen in recent years remains to be seen. The legal battle over SB 1070 has been costly for Arizona, and already there has been a renewed legal challenge to the law, with immigrant advocates seeking an alternate way to block implementation of the provision upheld by the high court, known as Section 2(B).

Sen. John Watkins, a Republican from Virginia who co-chairs NCSL's Immigration and the States Task Force, provided his take in a report summary:

"The ruling we got is a yellow light, in that states can move forward in some areas, but not in others.”

In a previous post, two legal experts predicted what the SB 1070 ruling could mean for states going forward. The entire NCSL report can be read here.