New immigration laws split America in two

New immigration laws split America in two

MSNBC By Benjy Sarlin

It may come next week or maybe six months from now, but House Republicans will decisively determine whether to kill immigration reform or make a real attempt at passing it. No one would be surprised if Speaker John Boehner chose the former option.

But the longer Boehner takes to decide, the more ground he cedes to states dominated by single party politics and eager to craft immigration laws in the face of a crippled Congress.

Congressional inaction has left millions of families increasingly living in two parallel universes. Republican-run states turn cops into border patrol agents and cut undocumented immigrants off from housing, school, employment, and private charities. But in states dominated by Democrats, the same immigrants are gaining access to drivers’ licenses, better wages and college educations for their children.

Just three years ago, Republican statehouse victories prompted a wave of efforts by conservative legislatures to expel their immigrant populations. Led by Arizona, governors signed laws aimed at making daily life for the undocumented especially difficult.

But a combination of judicial rulings and public backlash helped to significantly weaken those laws and now restrict states from passing harsher ones. While life is harder for migrant workers in these places, undocumented communities have mostly toughed out the changes, compelled by work opportunities and family ties to stay put.

And just as red states moved to crack down on immigrants in the wake of the 2010 tea party revolution, a number of blue states interpreted Democrats’ 2012 success with Latino voters as a signal to move in the opposite direction. Today, entire states, cities, towns, counties and school boards, mostly in Democratic pockets across the country, are passing laws designed to protect unauthorized immigrants from deportations and harassment.

The leading player in this burgeoning trend is California, where Gov. Jerry Brown has signed a slew of legislation aimed at expanding access to education, work, and transportation.

“The year 2013 was a complete reversal on this issue,” said Muzaffar Chishti, who researches states immigration policy as director of the Migration Policy Institute’s office at New York University, told msnbc.  “In many ways, you could say California has become the anti-Arizona.”

California’s laws represent a huge political shift – the state is only two decades removed from leading the modern anti-immigration movement. But its policies face many of the same problems that bedeviled red states’ unsuccessful attempts to impact immigration from the other direction. Without the help of Congress and the White House, they can only strike out so far on their own.

The Golden State is hardly alone: places like Illinois, New Jersey and Colorado are rapidly revamping their policies to be more immigrant-friendly. Most of the latest immigration laws were tested elsewhere first, but they’re gaining traction like never before as demographics and public attitudes push state lawmakers into the pro-reform camp.

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