Congress Has Abandoned Policy-Making Responsibility for Immigration. So Who’s Making Policy?

US Capitol Building with We are Closed Sign on US American Flag Background Illustration

Updated April 8.

With Congress abandoning its policy-making responsibility for immigration, policy-making initiative now rests with the executive, the states, localities, and the courts.

While Washington has been preoccupied with a fight over the president’s Executive Actions on Immigration, there is more activity on the immigration front than the president’s decrees. That activity is happening in 50 states, and in many more communities.

On March 29, Julia Preston of The New York Times wrote a nice summary of how immigration policy in this country diverges greatly among the states. She contrasts the lives of two undocumented women—one in Washington, which has enacted policies that are welcoming to immigrants, including one allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain drivers licenses, and one in Texas, which has brought a lawsuit against the president to stop his immigration executive actions.

In general, states are divided by where immigrants live. States with significant immigrant populations, including significant populations of undocumented immigrants, tend to be more welcoming. The integration of undocumented immigrants is important to them. It is good for their economies. States with smaller immigrant populations tend to be less welcoming, and it is these states that have joined the Texas lawsuit against the president’s welcoming policies.

That generalization has its exceptions. Texas, for example, has the third largest immigrant population in the U.S., and is home to more than 700,000 immigrants who would benefit from the president’s executive actions that have been put on hold. It has taken the lead in fighting the president’s executive actions on immigration.

Cities vs. States

But dividing the country into welcoming and hostile states does not give a complete picture. Zoom in a little, and we can see that Houston, the largest city in Texas with a foreign-born population of 1.4 million—a third of the state’s total—is included in a coalition of cities and counties that have joined the court battle in support of the president and against the state of Texas. Of the immigrants potentially eligible for the president’s executive action in Texas, about a quarter—196,000—are in the Houston area. Also within Texas, Dallas County (283,000 undocumented), El Paso County (69,000 undocumented), and Travis County (including Austin, 85,000 undocumented) have joined Houston in arguing against the Texas lawsuit.

It is the same story in other states. While South Carolina has joined the Texas lawsuit, the city of Charleston and the Mayor of Columbia (the state’s two largest cities, with approximately a quarter of the state’s small unauthorized population) have joined the more than 70 city and county leaders who are asking the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals to let the president’s immigration relief policies to proceed.

These leaders understand the economic benefits of the president’s immigration action. The cities they represent are the economic engines of their states, and they understand the role immigrants have played in their cities’ economic vitality.

A Broken Law Risks Widespread Disregard

Zoom in even more, and you have individuals all over the country who are going to treat their undocumented neighbors (more than three-quarters of whom have been living in the U.S. longer than five years) not as lawbreakers who should be ostracized, but as neighbors. The law has been broken for so long, and Congress seems so utterly uninterested in fixing it. It is bound to be widely disregarded.

Image obtained from iStockPhoto.

This post is updated from the original of April 3, to reflect the greater number of cities and counties in coalition against the Texas lawsuit.