For progressive supporters of immigration reform, recent developments in national politics must undoubtedly seem grim. While two key elements of President Barack Obama’s sweeping executive actions on immigration appear to be headed towards defeat before the Firth Circuit Court of Appeals, House Speaker John Boehner continues to blame those actions for Congress’ inability to pass immigration reform.
Behind the scenes, however, a growing number of states are working to fill the gap left by federal inaction in this area. At least 20 states have passed bills granting in-state college tuition to undocumented immigrants, and over a dozen have legalized driver licenses for this group. A bill currently making its way through the California legislature, along with similar legislation introduced in Texas and on the books in Utah, seeks to push the limits of what states can do in terms of immigration policy, by authorizing state-issued worker permits for undocumented farmworker families who are already in the state.
“We have a large population of people who came here to work, not to be any kind of security threat to anybody. And they came to work in an industry that needs them badly,” said Bryan Little, director of employment policy at the California Farm Bureau Association.
Despite the polarization of the immigration debate at the federal level, the bill, introduced by democratic state assembly member Luis Alejo, has met with bipartisan support in California. It passed the state assembly with only two “no” votes, and is supported by both farmer and farm labor organizations.
The greatest challenge to Alejo’s initiative, however, could come after its passage. The bill would require federal approval by the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice for the worker permit program. According to the Los Angeles Times, a work authorization program passed by Utah in 2011 has yet to be implemented for lack of federal support.
Yet supporters of the California bill remain undaunted. “The federal government, particularly members of Congress, are reluctant to allow individual states to conjure up 50 different immigration plans,” said Joel Nelson, president of California Citrus Mutual, adding, “but if they are unable to create a solution, then don’t stop us from doing it.”
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