The red-hot immigration debate cooled in statehouses this year as lawmakers focused their attention on budgets, redistricting and, most significantly, the outcome of a U.S. Supreme Court case on the issue.
Lawmakers still passed 208 immigration-related bills this year, but that’s the fewest in any year since 2006, according to a new report by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Perhaps most notably, there were just five states — including Kansas and Missouri — that introduced sweeping bills this year that contained measures aimed at curtailing illegal immigration. No bill passed.
In contrast, last year legislatures in 30 states introduced 50 bills aimed at cracking down on illegal immigration similar to the Arizona law that was partially upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in June.
“A lot of folks talked about the Supreme Court case … as a reason to pause and see what they could do,” said Ann Morse, program director for the Immigrant Policy Project at the National Conference of State Legislatures. “I am waiting for next year to see if states want to go forward and do more with what the Supreme Court has just authorized them to do. How will they take this authority? Do they want to get more engaged?”
In June, the Supreme Court handed down a mixed opinion on Arizona’s controversial immigration law, authored in part by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach.
The court said Arizona could require police who have stopped people for other legitimate reasons to check their residency status if the officers suspect they are in the United States illegally. However, the court struck down provisions of the law that made it a state crime to be in the country without authorization and for an illegal immigrant to work or seek work without authorization.
Lawmakers in Kansas and Missouri have tinkered with bills requiring police to check the immigration status of someone they suspect is in the United States illegally. But so far neither bill has gotten very far in either statehouse.
Both bills, however, could return next year after the Supreme Court’s decision in the Arizona case.
“I think there was sort of a wait-and-see attitude because of the Arizona case being in front of the Supreme Court,” Kobach said. “I think in a lot of states, Kansas included, some legislators said, ‘Let’s see what the Supreme Court says.’”
Morse said the immigration issue also could be recharged next year if President Barack Obama is re-elected and state legislatures have to decide how to deal with the president’s directive to allow certain young undocumented immigrants to remain in the country without being deported.
The question they could face is whether they recognize Obama’s policy and provide public benefits to undocumented immigrants, or do they follow the lead of such states as Arizona, Mississippi and Nebraska, which are refusing to provide benefits to illegal immigrants — even though they would not be deported.
This year in Kansas, the immigration debate was slowed by a tug of war between rank-and-file Republican lawmakers and their leaders.
Leadership in the House, which is dominated by conservative Republicans, wasn’t interested in a divisive immigration bill that would cause an ugly floor fight and fracture the party.
A House committee took several days of testimony on bills that would have gotten tough on illegal immigration, plus one bill that would have allowed undocumented immigrants to help fill state-certified labor shortages in agriculture and other industries.
The panel eventually agreed to a very narrow proposal that would require the state to enroll in the Internet-based E-Verify program to determine the eligibility of its employees to work in the United States. But it later died on the House floor.
House Majority Leader Arlen Siegfreid said one bill that had overwhelming support never emerged.
“Part of the caucus wanted a much stronger bill, part of the caucus wanted a much weaker bill,” the Olathe Republican said.
Yet the immigration issue will probably return to the Kansas Legislature next year, especially with conservatives poised to gain control of the Senate, and this time it could go somewhere.
“My sense is it’s going to gain some traction,” said Rep. John Rubin, a Shawnee Republican.
Siegfreid predicted that the House would again pass a bill repealing the law allowing in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants. The House passed the in-state tuition bill in 2011, only to have it scuttled in the moderate-controlled Senate.
He also predicted that a variation of E-verify would return, as well as legislation allowing police to check the immigration status of someone they stop.
Siegfreid, who wants to run for House speaker if he is re-elected this fall, said he would like to take a cautious approach to any immigration issue that the Legislature might address.
“I do not think it would be reasonable to put us in a situation where we start through the courts again if we can help it,” Siegfreid said. “I would like to pass laws that have been upheld by the courts.”
In Missouri, Sen. Will Kraus, a Lee’s Summit Republican, authored the centerpiece immigration bill this year. Kraus’ plan would have required public schools to verify the immigration status of students at the time they enroll. It also would have made not carrying proper citizenship documentation a misdemeanor.
Similar to the Kansas efforts, Kraus’ plan didn’t go far. His bill died in the Senate after it passed out of a committee.
“The leadership in the Senate, for whatever reason, did not move the legislation along, I’m assuming because they had other issues that were going to take time and they knew immigration was going to be a significant time debate,” Kraus said.
Kraus said he thinks the immigration issue has waned in Missouri because that state already has gotten tough on undocumented immigrants.
In 2008, Missouri enacted several new measures that require checks on the legal status of all public employees, welfare applicants and jailed criminal suspects. The state prohibited issuing driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants and imposed new penalties for transporting illegal immigrants.
The law also empowered the attorney general to file civil actions against employers who hire illegal workers and allows the state to cancel contracts with such companies. Repeat offenders could lose their business licenses.
“We have passed strong legislation,” Kraus noted.
Meanwhile, Senate President Pro Tem Robert Mayer, a Dexter Republican, has created a special committee to look at immigration proposals before next year’s legislative session.
The five-member committee is scheduled to hold meetings in St. Louis, Kansas City, Springfield and possibly Joplin. Its chairman is Sen. John Lamping, a Ladue Republican. He said he wants the committee to look for ways to encourage legal immigration. He said he is less interested in trying to find ways for Missouri to fill any enforcement void left by the federal government.
And he hopes the committee will come up with ideas that will “send a message to the immigrant community that we’re really trying to figure out ways to attract and retain these legal immigrant communities because we think it can be a real asset to the state.”