State-level Immigration Enforcement Is Costly & Confusing

PoliceOn Friday I had the opportunity to participate in a panel discussion on state-level immigration and integration policy at the UNO-hosted conference “4th Annual Latino/Latin American Cumbre/Summit of the Great Plains.” An audience of participants and panelists from around the country and the world gathered to discuss state-level policy approaches to immigration. As part of this discussion, I shared Nebraska’s experience with a state immigration enforcement law, Legislative Bill (LB) 403, which has led to confusion, expense, and uncertainty.

In Nebraska, for many years we had seen a wise and forward-looking approach by state legislators that supported integration policies, such as our education law that allows Nebraska students without legal status to pay in-state tuition and pursue higher education. Until last month, we also had a wise fiscal and health policy that guaranteed prenatal care for all pregnant women and their babies in Nebraska, regardless of immigration status. A decade ago we had a state-level task force on the productive integration of our immigrant workforce. Recently, we have also seen the Legislature and the public cautiously assess and reasonably reject many recent proposals that encouraged state-level involvement in immigration enforcement. (This experience was typical of the national trend. See “The Anti-Immigrant Movement that Failed: Positive Integration Policies by States Still Far Outweigh Punitive Policies”, documenting that although many more state-level immigration proposals were introduced in recent years, a majority of those that passed tended to take an integration approach.)

Unfortunately, Nebraska’s was detoured from this positive track record in 2009, with the passage of LB 403. LB 403 requires additional immigration status checks by the state for public benefits and employment. The early experience with the law has not been positive. First, LB 403 has caused confusion and uncertainty. Adding an extra layer of state law to the already complex areas of immigration and public benefits law has left services providers and those seeking benefits in puzzlement, since it is not at all clear what is affected by LB 403’s provisions.

Second, LB 403 has harmed citizens and other eligible immigrants. Due to its ambiguous provisions, LB 403 has the effect of deterring eligible people from applying for benefits. For example, parents are deterred from applying for benefits for their citizen children and those children in turn are not accessing the benefits they need. Moreover, verification schemes mandated by LB 403 have been misused: both by invading benefit applicants’ privacy, and by discriminating against employees.

Finally, LB 403 is costly and unnecessary. Most major public benefit programs, such has Food Stamps and Medicaid, have been restricted based on immigration status for over a decade. There is no evidence showing a need for additional verification schemes. Not only has LB 403 been confusing and harmful, it has also been expensive. Though a dollar amount has not been made public, a significant amount of administrative expense has been caused by LB 403’s confusing provisions. In our neighboring state of Colorado, we know that a similar law costs the state an additional $2 million per year and has saved the state nothing. “Colorado immigration law falls short of goal” – Denver Post

Fortunately, there are better solutions than local laws like LB 403. And fortunately, despite this detour from good policy, the Legislature continued to reject problematic immigration policies this last session. As many members of the Legislature have stated on the floor, a federal solution is required and Congress needs to act. The key is to support common sense and humane immigration reform. We need reform which will uphold our values and move us forward together. City councils and the Nebraska Legislature can support federal reform by passing resolutions in support. Another positive step is supporting community-based integration efforts, such as Nebraska Is Home. Integration programs like this allow neighbors to get to know neighbors though community building activities, education, and positive messages. For additional information on positive state approaches to immigration and integration, see:

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