U.S. President Barack Obama’s executive action on immigration is facing its biggest legal challenge yet after a Texas federal judge temporarily blocked the implementation of deportation relief programs announced in November. But as federal authorities wrangle over next steps, some state lawmakers are in the midst of a push to roll back other benefits for undocumented immigrants that have already been granted.
While Obama’s executive action aimed to issue work permits for unauthorized immigrants and temporarily shield them from deportation, state policies are largely what determine their quality of life, government services they can access and how far they can advance economically. In recent weeks, driver’s licenses and in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants have faced new threats in Colorado, New Mexico and Texas as legislators debate undoing laws that, in some cases, have been in place for years.
New Mexico was one of the first states in the U.S. to issue driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants in 2003. But 12 years after the law was first enacted, Republicans in the legislature are saying it was a mistake and that the program has only enticed fraud.
“New Mexico driver’s licenses have become a commodity for criminal organizations in this country,” Greg Fouratt, a former U.S. attorney who now runs the state's Department of Public Safety said, according to the Albuquerque Journal.
Supporters of the law, however, argue it ensures public safety while also supporting immigrants’ livelihoods, and many have protested vehemently against a repeal. “There is nothing wrong with the law,” Marcela Diaz, executive director of Santa Fe-based advocacy group Somos Un Pueblo Unido said, according to the Associated Press. “It’s working for many families.”
The state’s Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted last week to repeal the law, and New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez, the nation’s first and only Latina governor, has openly supported the move. But the Senate, of which Democrats make up the majority, could still defeat the measure. That would echo what happened in 2011 and 2012, when the House passed through similar legislation only to see it die in the Senate.
Colorado had allowed undocumented immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses even before New Mexico. But in 1999 the state began requiring applicants to show proof of legal residence. That changed in 2013 with yet another law that allowed state residents to apply for licenses regardless of status, and went into effect in August.
The Republican-dominated state senate last week rejected a bill that would have kept the program funded. Now only one DMV office in Denver remains to process driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, down from five previously statewide.
"It's really discouraging," Pilar Carrillo, an immigration advocate based in Colorado who had been campaigning to expand the drivers' license program for immigrants, said. She said the defunding move had simply threatened public safety in Colorado. "The reality is that people are driving, whether it's to school, or church, or work, or their activities. Just because people cannot have the opportunity to have a license doesn't mean they will stop driving."
The developments in Colorado and New Mexico are in part grounded in state politics, but they’re also part of a wider backlash against benefits for undocumented immigrants, particularly in light of the national battle over executive action. “Yes, this is about a pushback playing out at the state level, but it’s also about national pushback on progress that we have made,” Gabriela Flora, program director at the American Friends Service Committee’s Colorado Immigrant Rights Program, said.
Ten states as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico allow undocumented immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses. If the White House’s deferred action programs can’t recover from Tuesday’s injunction or the multi-state lawsuit challenging their constitutionality, rolling back driver’s licenses laws would be a double whammy for undocumented immigrants living in those states. But Flora also noted that the license issue affects a larger portion of the immigrant community.
“The reality is that the requirements for DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] and DAPA [Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents] don’t include a lot of folks who are really central in our community,” she said. Both DACA and DAPA would only provide deportation relief and work permits to immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children or who are parents of U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents.
In Texas, policymakers are debating another measure that would repeal in-state tuition for young undocumented immigrants who grew up in the U.S. Texas was the first state in the country to pass such a law, under former governor Rick Perry in 2001. But Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who was elected in November, has been vocal about repealing the law, calling it a “magnet” drawing more people to illegally cross the border into Texas. The state's current governor, Greg Abbott, has opposed a repeal, and lawmakers are still establishing their positions on the issue.
Legislation granting in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants, known as the Dream Act, have flourished at the state level over the past decade, and 17 states now have such laws in place. But immigration has surged to the forefront of Texas’s state politics in the wake of the surge in unaccompanied child migrants and families from Central America last summer. Republicans now control both chambers of the state legislature, and a new procedural rule that eliminates the two-thirds requirement for voting on measures could further tip the scale in their favor in the coming months.