States tackle immigration on their home turfs

By Meryl Kornfield


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State legislatures amassed more than 250 bills focused on immigration this year, drilling down on hot topics like sanctuary cities and professional licensing, as well as new concerns including the census question and separating children from their parents at the border.

New proposals this legislative session come on the heels of a decade of immigration reform. Between 2005 and 2017, state legislatures passed 2,100 immigration-related laws, the Bipartisan Policy Center found.

Colorado Democratic state Sen. Julie Gonzales was one of many lawmakers around the country focused on immigration-specific legislation this session. She cited federal lawmakers’ inaction for why she and others took up regulations relating to undocumented immigrants.

“Congress is so broken it can’t figure out what day of the week it is,” she said, “and so it has fallen to states and counties and municipalities to figure out how best to address immigration in the state and local context.”

As a result, Colorado and others passed laws that would limit agreements local law enforcement could make with ICE.

However, other states chose to closely follow federal law.

Of more than 30 bills relating to sanctuary policies considered this session, 21 weighed measures against policies that prohibit federal immigration enforcement in cities, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. For instance, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill requiring law enforcement agencies to comply with ICE, increasing an undocumented immigrant’s chances of deportation.

“Sanctuary cities basically create law-free zones where people can come to our state illegally and our country illegally, commit criminal offenses and then just walk right out the door and continue to do it,” DeSantis said at the signing of the bill, according to CBS News. “In Florida, that will not happen.”

Social issues were also heavily legislated and debated in statehouses across the country.

[The Investigative Reporting Workshop has been tracking immigration issues since President Trump began his term in January 2017. Check out our interactive timeline.]


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Four states considered whether Dreamers, immigrants brought to the country as children who qualify for a pathway to citizenship, should be eligible for in-state tuition, while 14 states considered other measures relating to access to reduced tuition.

New York passed a Green Light bill in July, becoming the 13th state to allow undocumented immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses. The bill, considered deeply divisive, brought immigrant activists to the steps of Albany’s statehouse, waving posters that looked like driver’s licenses and traffic lights.

Peter Boogard, spokesman for, a criminal justice and immigration advocacy organization, said offering in-state tuition and driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants shouldn’t be seen as partisan.

“When we have particularly incredible young people, like Dreamers, who are living, working, contributing to their communities, denying them access to in-state tuition, to the ability to get a driver’s license, not only hurts them and their families but the broader communities,” Boogard said. “It limits their ability to get an education, to drive, to get jobs, and those things negatively impact our economy.”

Shari Rendall, the state and local engagement director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an organization that lobbies to reduce both legal and illegal immigration, disagreed, saying that undocumented immigrants with higher education and jobs would take resources away from “individuals who waited patiently for citizenship.”

[IRW looks at where the presidential candidates stand on immigration.]

In-state tuition

Younger undocumented immigrants can face differing rules in each state concerning not only access to higher education but the funds to pay for it. In-state tuition, a reduced rate offered to students who have lived in or attended school in a state for a certain number of years, is not always available to students who can prove residency but not citizenship.

Sixteen states have passed laws ensuring in-state tuition to undocumented immigrant students, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Conversely, six states bar these students from in-state tuition.


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Sanctuary policies can result in a tug-of-war between federal law and local law enforcement. According to the Attorney General’s office in 2017, a sanctuary jurisdiction is one that doesn’t comply with Section 1373 of federal law, meaning law enforcement officials not only can’t assist with immigration enforcement but also can’t ask about a person’s immigration status during a traffic stop or arrest.

This legislative session, Washington joined Oregon and California as a “sanctuary state” by passing a law that restricts all state and local law enforcement from requesting a person’s immigration status. Proponents of sanctuary policies from these states argue it will assist law enforcement by protecting immigrant witnesses who might not want to cooperate with police out of fear of deportation.

Other states, including Florida, have gone in the opposite direction by banning sanctuary cities. Lawmakers proposing bans maintain that federal law preempts cities’ sanctuary policies.

Drivers’ licenses

Although it is likely undocumented immigrants drive in all states, only 13 offer non-citizens the ability to apply for a driver’s license. New York this legislative session became the most recent state to adopt this policy.


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Immigrant advocates argue road safety is at risk when undocumented immigrants can’t go through obligatory training and testing before getting behind the wheel.

Those against expanding driver’s license eligibility say it could result in voter fraud. Since New York passed its Green Light bill, some local clerks have said they will refuse to follow it, the Wall Street Journal reported.

One concern when passing driver’s license legislation has been complying with federal law. The REAL ID Act of 2005 set certain standards for IDs that could be used for federal purposes, including airport security, requiring that licenses’ designs distinguish between citizens and non-citizens.

Below is a comprehensive list of what immigration laws each state is considering or has considered this year.


  • Alabama’s Senate passed legislation that would let the state’s taxpayers direct part of their income tax refund to funding the border wall. The House didn’t hear the bill, so it didn’t make it to the governor’s desk.
  • Another bill would have required businesses with five or more employees to prove they use E-Verify, which checks the citizenship status of job applicants, to receive business licenses. The bill didn’t pass its first committee.


Alaska has not considered any substantial immigration reform this year.


  • Students marched on Arizona’s capital in favor of a bill that would have provided in-state tuition to undocumented residents of the state, but the measure didn’t pass. After the Senate passed it, the bill stalled in the House, so the sponsor attached it to another bill, which also failed.
  • A Senate resolution to encourage funding of a border wall passed in committee along party lines but didn’t make it to a final vote. A Senate resolution has no legislative effect.
  • Another bill banning non-citizens from working within government failed to pass its first committee, as did a bill revoking licenses of businesses where undocumented immigrants work.


  • The governor signed bills that would cut funding to “sanctuary cities” that don’t cooperate with federal immigration authorities and allow Dreamers access to in-state tuition.
  • A resolution supporting long-term, federal border security funding passed the Senate but wasn’t heard in the House.


According to the Bipartisan Policy Center, California produces the most immigration legislation of any state, and this year is no different. California introduced bills that:

  • Ban state law enforcement from sharing a person’s immigration status with any entity for immigration enforcement purposes.
  • Expand state health care to undocumented immigrants that would otherwise be eligible.
  • Prohibit faith-based organizations from sharing their volunteers’ citizenship status with a third party unless given consent.

California became the first state to offer healthcare to undocumented immigrants, according to the Sacramento Bee. The state will allocate $98 million to insured immigrants under 26 who are eligible for the state’s Medicaid program.


  • While state and immigration advocates have wrestled since last year with how much access to give ICE officials in Colorado, this year’s legislation will curb local law enforcements’ assistance with immigration enforcement.
  • Immigrants driving on Colorado streets are eligible for driver’s licenses, per a 2014 law. However, the initial law limited where immigrants could go to get licenses issued. A bill passed this year would reduce the backlog of immigrants applying for licenses by offering more locations.
  • Another bill that passed reduces maximum criminal sentences from one year to 364 days. While one day may seem insignificant, the bill is aimed at immigrants — who face deportation if charged with a crime and sentenced to a year or longer.


  • The state’s General Assembly passed legislation that would prevent local law enforcement from reporting an alleged criminal’s immigration status unless the person gives permission or is suspected of terrorism. A bill that would have made it illegal to interfere with immigration enforcement failed.
  • Like Colorado, Connecticut considered reducing maximum sentencing of misdemeanors to 364 days, but the measure was tabled because of scheduling.


None of the state’s current bills relate to immigration.


  • Supported by the governor and Legislature, a bill that banned cities from enforcing “sanctuary policies” became law.
  • The senator who proposed the ban also co-sponsored a bill mandating employers use the E-Verify system. That legislation didn’t pass the first committee, but he has told several Florida newspapers he would capitalize on the success of the sanctuary cities ban to push E-Verify in 2020.


  • State lawmakers repealed Georgia’s Immigration Enforcement Review Board, created six years ago to investigate violations of immigration-related state laws. The board received 20 complaints and all but one was from a prominent anti-illegal immigration activist, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
  • The state didn’t pass legislation that would require the state’s corrections office to create a database of non-citizen inmates or allow illegal immigrants to get a driver’s license.


While the state Legislature considered bills that would have made Hawaii a sanctuary state and given the state’s judiciary the direction to contract nonprofit organizations to provide legal assistance to immigrants, neither measure made it to the governor’s desk.


No bills relating to immigration reform were proposed.


The “Keep Illinois Families Together Act” was signed by the governor, prohibiting local law enforcement from entering into agreements with ICE.


Legislation to offer non-citizen residents in-state tuition was considered but not passed.


State lawmakers considered but didn’t pass bills that would:

  • Make it illegal for businesses to hire “unauthorized aliens” and require employers to use the federal government’s E-verify program
  • Create a felony penalty for non-citizens who are charged with a serious misdemeanor
  • Establish a database of criminal offenses committed by nonresident aliens


State lawmakers proposed removing the requirement to provide proof of citizenship to vote, but the measure didn’t pass its first committee.


Legislation banning sanctuary policies created by cities or universities didn’t pass.


State lawmakers didn’t propose any substantial immigration-related legislation, even as the state’s correctional facilities have increasingly been used by ICE to detain more undocumented immigrants, as reported by multiple news sources, including the Times-Picayune.


Lawmakers proposed dueling legislation — one prohibiting sanctuary policies and another effectively making Maine a sanctuary state — but neither passed.


  • State lawmakers passed legislation awarding students who are illegal immigrants the ability to apply for in-state tuition and allowing residents in the process of obtaining citizenship to become police officers.
  • Lawmakers considered but didn’t pass a bill limiting law enforcement agencies from inquiring about a person’s immigration status.


Although lawmakers have proposed diverse — and in some cases contradictory — immigration-related legislation, nothing has reached the governor’s desk. The state Legislature is in session until December, meaning bills still could become law. Bills suggested so far would:


State lawmakers proposed legislation that would ban local sanctuary policies. The bill has not progressed to a floor vote, but the Legislature is in session until December.


Immigrant advocates had pushed for bills that would have given non-citizens the ability to get driver’s licenses and more grant funding for paying college tuition. Both bills failed to reach the governor’s desk.


Lawmakers proposed requiring proof of citizenship to get a job, to vote or for access to social services but all measures failed to pass committees.


  • Lawmakers extinguished an attempt to offer in-state tuition rates to students without lawful immigration status at the last minute during budget negotiations.
  • A Senate bill that would have required law enforcement to check a person’s immigrant status with ICE if they were stopped and suspected of not being a citizen passed one committee but wasn’t voted on by the chamber.


Montana’s governor vetoed a bill banning sanctuary policies.


Legislation that required jails and law enforcement to provide public notice before entering into agreements with ICE wasn’t scheduled to be heard in its first committee before the session ended.


  • The governor signed several bills. One requires a prisoner be informed if they are being questioned to determine their immigration status; another removes a citizenship requirement for professional licensing purposes and a third streamlines the application process for a Nonimmigrant U-Visa, a temporary visa that can lead to permanent status for crime victims or witnesses. Five other states considered similar bills relating to the temporary visa.
  • State lawmakers also passed a resolution urging Congress to prevent the United States Census Bureau from adding a citizenship question to the 2020 decennial census.


Of immigration-related legislation introduced in New Hampshire’s Legislature, a bill providing access to driver’s licenses for residents without Social Security numbers made the most progress, passing the House but not the Senate. In addition, both House and Senate versions of a bill banning sanctuary cities failed to pass in their respective chambers.


State and local law enforcement were directed not to question if a person is a citizen or provide a person’s immigration status to ICE by the state’s attorney general last year. Lawmakers are still in session, considering bills including legislation expanding driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants.


New Mexico’s Legislature failed to approve two identical “sanctuary state” bills that would have limited law enforcement’s ability to cooperate with immigration officials. The state’s jails already refuse to detain inmates for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to an ICE document.


  • New York’s Legislature is in session until the end of the year, but so far state lawmakers have passed bills that expand access to driver’s licenses and academic financial aid to undocumented immigrants.
  • Other bills in consideration could make New York a sanctuary state, classify threatening to report someone’s immigration status as extortion, require courts to explain to immigrant defendants that a guilty plea could mean they would be deported, reduce maximum sentencing for misdemeanors to 364 days and allow Dreamers to apply for professional licenses. Immigrants face deportation if charged with a crime and sentenced to a year or longer.


The state passed a sanctuary city ban in 2015 but upped the ante this legislative session with a bill that would allow citizens to sue their cities for failing to comply with immigration laws. The bill passed the House and is now in the Senate. Similarly, another House bill being considered by the Senate would require law enforcement to comply with ICE detainers.


State lawmakers passed a resolution urging Congress and the president to fund construction of a border wall.


Ohio’s legislative session extends to the end of 2019, giving lawmakers enough time to pass a bill that would require local law enforcement to cooperate with immigration enforcement and notify ICE when they suspect a person is undocumented.


The state Legislature didn’t consider any bills relating to undocumented immigrants.


  • The governor signed laws prohibiting courts from asking a defendant about their immigration status and streamlining the application process for a Nonimmigrant U-Visa. Another passed bill got rid of the requirement to prove citizenship to get a driver’s license.
  • A bill that would have allowed lawsuits against law enforcement agencies that enforced immigration laws didn’t make it past the first committee.


Because Pennsylvania’s legislative session doesn’t end until December, there is still time for a House bill requiring construction employers to verify employees’ Social Security numbers, which already passed the House and is in the Senate. Bills allowing access to in-state tuition and driver’s licenses have yet to be heard in committee.


State lawmakers held two bills for further study: One would have prohibited landlords from asking about a tenant’s immigration status and the other would have banned federal immigration enforcement from safe spaces, including schools, places of worship, health facilities and courts.


A bill that would have created an illegal immigration enforcement unit within the state’s Department of Public Safety passed in the House but didn’t make it through the Senate.


Lawmakers considered a bill banning local governments from creating or enforcing sanctuary policies, but it didn’t make it to the governor’s desk. A resolution in favor of Congress funding a steel barrier at the U.S.-Mexico border passed.


State law already prohibits state and local entities from enforcing sanctuary policies. A bill proposed by lawmakers would have exempted some agencies relating to education, children and health from that prohibition.


In addition to passing a budget that included $800.6 million allocated toward border security, Texas lawmakers focused on children immigrating illegally. However, only one bill was signed by the governor: legislation that makes it a criminal offense to misrepresent a child as a family member at a port of entry. Other proposed legislation that failed includes:

  • Collecting statistics on unaccompanied minors.
  • Removing a requirement that students at public colleges or universities verify their citizenship or prove they will become one.
  • Exempting employees of schools, hospitals or domestic violence shelters from cooperating with federal immigration officials.
  • Allowing police department employees to ask a detained person about their immigration status and share that information with federal officials.
  • Requiring proof of citizenship to register to vote.


State lawmakers agreed to reduce the maximum penalty for a misdemeanor conviction by one day to 364 days. Immigrants face deportation if charged with a crime and sentenced to a year or longer.


  • Legislation that would block law enforcement agencies from creating policies to communicate with federal immigration enforcement was signed by the governor. While Vermont doesn’t call itself a “sanctuary state,” it passed a law in 2017 limiting law enforcement’s ability to gather personal information, including citizenship status.
  • A bill that would have prevented the Department of Motor Vehicles from sharing people’s immigration statuses with any other agency relating to immigration enforcement didn’t pass.


  • Gov. Ralph Northam vetoed a bill that would have required law enforcement notify ICE before releasing a detained illegal immigrant. In an open letter to the state’s assembly, Northam wrote: “Were it to become law, this bill would send a clear message to people across the Commonwealth that our public safety agencies are to be feared and avoided rather than trusted and engaged.”
  • Legislation removing the requirements on local law enforcement to ascertain if a suspect is an illegal immigrant died before reaching the assembly’s floor.


Washington became the third so-called “sanctuary state” — joining Oregon and California — after the governor signed legislation that would prevent state and local authorities from questioning people about their immigration status.


Legislation that would have prohibited cities and counties from enforcing laws that prevented federal immigration enforcement didn’t pass.


Lawmakers are considering banning sanctuary cities.


A bill prohibiting cities from passing sanctuary policies failed.

Maps by Kelly Martin/IRW