Changes in the federal immigration policy do not appear to be on the horizon anytime soon. Congress has not enacted comprehensive immigration reform. President Barack Obama, has continued to delay any executive action, much to the disappointment of many immigrants and rights advocates. However, frustrated by the inaction, immigration changes are taking place at the state and local levels.
Many immigrants facing immigration issues or a hearing in immigration court cannot afford to hire an attorney. They may try and find pro-bono representation or go without an attorney. In July, the New York City Council enacted a new program to create an immigration public defender. For poor New York resident immigrants, the pilot program offers free legal services for those facing federal deportation hearings. Legal representation is a major factor affecting success in immigration matters.
Legal assistance is not provided by the courts, forcing many immigrants to navigate their way through our nation's complex immigration system. This new New York City program will help provide that benefit to thousands.
Other changes are taking place at the county level. Recently in New Mexico, Dona Ana County officials voted to prevent the local law enforcement officials from attempting to enforce federal immigration laws. A growing number of localities have been taking such action. This comes in reaction to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials request for local law enforcement to detain people for two days while ICE agents determine whether they have a legal immigration status.
The policy of local officials enforcing federal immigration policy has come under fire from immigrant advocate groups, and even law enforcement. Created by ICE, the Secure Communities policy was created to prioritize the removal of “criminal aliens, those who pose a threat to public safety, and repeat immigration violators.” However, many contend that the policy enforces a distrust of the police in immigrant communities, leading to under-reporting of crime, and lack of cooperation in police investigations. Often times, the people being detained and deported are held after being pulled over for minor traffic violation, with no criminal record.
It was not only immigrants and their families affected by the ICE program, but local government and law enforcement saw negative effects. Localities found that they were spending millions of dollars just in keeping people in custody, awaiting immigration determinations, who would have otherwise been released. Cook County, Illinois alone was spending about $15 million a year to this effect.
In reaction to the perverse affects of the policy, hundreds of localities are joining in, announcing they will no longer use local law enforcement to be administrators of federal immigration policy. Washington D.C. was the first to opt out of the policy, followed shortly by a number of major cities. Later, state governors in New York, California, and others made similar announcements.
Arizona took the opposite approach. Passage of SB 1070, in part, requires local law enforcement to check the immigration status of people stopped for violating any laws, including traffic violations. Tucson Police Chief Roberto Villaseñor has spoken out against SB 1070, but is required to enforce the controversial law. SB 1070 has been challenged in court on constitutional grounds. However, it appears states like Arizona stand in contrast to the growing number of states and localities rejecting the anti-immigrant stance.
Millions wait for the federal government to enact comprehensive immigration reform, while the president continues to push back executive immigration action. However, frustrated with the lack of action, state and local governments are taking immigration matters into their own hands. Increasingly, those local changes are aimed at helping the local immigrant community.