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Immigration Advocates Take Fight For Reform To State Houses

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While the GOP-controlled Congress may be dithering when it comes to passing permanent relief for immigrant families (unless, of course, it involves nearly shutting down our nation’s security over immigration action and an endless series of hearings featuring leaders of the anti-immigrant movement), there’s a flurry of positive activity happening in state legislatures all across the country.

Yesterday in Florida, State Representative Jose Javier Rodriguez filed two amendments that would have granted driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. While the amendments ultimately were voted down, local groups celebrated the news of the debate as a possible inroad to continuing talks.

From the Florida Immigrant Coalition:

For the first time in 4 years, we were able to have a discussion about Driver’s Licenses in the Florida House of Representatives and more specifically on the FL House Floor.

This was an attempt to begin the dialogue with members of the Florida legislature on the issues of driver’s license for all Florida residents regardless of their immigration status.

Today was definitely a good step in the right direction. Our members of the FL House were able to have a discussion about all of the benefits, including public safety and the economic benefits to the state as well as the concerns from the opposition.

(More background on Rodriguez’s amendment is available in a blog post from the Florida Immigrant Coalition).

Even more surprising news comes from Nebraska and Georgia. Nebraska is currently the only state in the nation that denies driver’s licenses to DACA recipients, but yesterday the Republican Mayor of Omaha, Jean Stothert, sent a letter to the state legislature stating her support for a new law that could change that.

From the Omaha World Herald:

“Here in Omaha, we should make children of undocumented workers who are on a path to legal status have the tools they need to be productive members of our community,” she wrote in a letter.

Just as surprising, a fellow Republican in the Senate echoed her sentiments:

In addition, a key state senator, Jim Smith of Papillion, said the chances are “very good” that the full Legislature will debate the measure, which has been stalled in the Legislature’s Transportation and Telecommunications Committee.

“I’m pleasantly surprised to see Mayor Stothert’s letter,” said Smith, a fellow Republican, and the chairman of the Transportation Committee.

Nebraska is the only state that denies driver’s licenses for DACA participants. The policy was enacted by former Gov. Dave Heineman, who said that granting licenses would violate a state law prohibiting government benefits to illegal immigrants.

But Stothert, a rising star in the Republican Party, said she supports “a path to legal status for those who came here as a minor.”

And in Georgia, where Republicans hold a supermajority in the State Senate, legislators voted down an amendment that would have banned undocumented immigrants who would benefit from immigration action from applying for driver’s licenses.

From the International Business Times:

“This is going after college students … [and] members of the military who are not here because of any action of their own,” said Sen. Curt Thompson, a Democrat. Other opponents said business leaders in Georgia were not supportive of the Republican proposal, the Chronicle reported. “International corporations who have their North American headquarters here feel this is very ill-advised legislation,” said Sen. Nan Orrock, a Democrat.

Perhaps some of the more publicized pieces of legislation have been the recent battles over state DREAM Acts, specifically in New York, Texas, and Tennessee.

In New York, dozens of DREAMers fasted for a week after news that Gov. Andrew Cuomo (who had been promising to include the New York DREAM Act in his 2015 budget) walked back his commitment after failing to come to an agreement with the leaders of the State Senate and Assembly.

However, advocates believe there is still a path for passage of the New York DREAM Act, and the lead sponsor of the bill, Assemblyman Francisco Moya, plans to make another push.

From Capital New York:

The lead sponsor of legislation that would open state tuition assistance programs to undocumented students remains hopeful that the Dream Act could pass during the legislative session, even after it was removed from the state budget.

In an interview on “The Capitol Pressroom,” Assemblyman Francisco Moya, a Democrat who represents part of Queens, didn’t solely blame Senate Republicans, who have been staunchly opposed to the legislation, for not including the bill in the state budget.

“Obviously there’s enough blame to go around here,” Moya said. “Yes, it’s true that the Senate Republicans played a major role in making sure that we did not have the Dream Act included in the budget. But we’re also looking for the governor—his leadership on this issue. This is an issue that he had campaigned on. This is an issue that he said was a top priority to him. We look to him now that we are past the budget to help get this through this session.”

In Texas, the GOP-controlled legislature is engaged in a more intense internal battle over in-state tuition rates for undocumented students.

Earlier this week, over 170 DREAMers and allies testified until the late night hours against SB 1819, a bill that would repeal the landmark Texas DREAM Act signed into law by Republican Gov. Rick Perry in 2001. While the repeal passed committee and is headed to the full Senate for a vote, it faces an uncertain future in the Assembly, where Speaker Joe Straus has declared his opposition to the repeal effort:

“These are young people who have played by the rules, who’ve qualified for admission at our colleges, who’ve gone to our public schools and, personally, I can think of a lot worse things these people can be doing with their lives than pursuing higher education and becoming engaged citizens in our economy and paying taxes.”

However, repeal still has the support of most the House Republicans, and Gov. Greg Abbott has indicated he would not repeal the bill were it to come to his desk. In response, students and local groups have mobilized with actions and petitions (available to sign here) opposing the repeal.

And finally, in Tennessee, another GOP supermajority has taken one step closer to passing in-state tuition rates for undocumented students. One Republican, Rep. Kent Calfee, said he was “dead-set” against the proposed legislation, that is, until a last-minute “epiphany”:

From The Tennessean:

“The fact that the parents are here under the radar just chills me to the bone, but that’s no fault of the children,” Calfee said during the committee hearing. “I think that this is the right thing to do.”

Calfee wasn’t the only lawmaker to voice unexpected support for the bill, which was ultimately approved to head to the House Government Operations Committee.

Rep. Rick Womick, R-Rockvale, said he worried that the bill was unfair to immigrants who entered the country legally, and that it could encourage more undocumented immigrants to come to Tennessee. But the outspoken conservative said he favored the bill after hearing the testimony of Karla Chavez, an undocumented student who came to Nashville when she was 5 years old.

“I look at these young men and women, and this is not their fault,” Womick said. “This has become their home, they’ve grown up here, and who are we to say they cannot go on to college?”

With House Republicans failing to so much as even bring immigration legislation to the floor during the last Congress, countless states have taken significant steps forward in enacting legislation benefiting immigrant families and youth.

Perhaps no other state has proved this more than California, where a new law enacted this year has already resulted in almost 500,000 undocumented immigrants applying for driver’s licenses.