Columns/Opinion, Opinion

On immigration, go slow and steady

by Karthick Ramakrishnan and Allan Colbern

On Feb. 4, Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., introduced the Dream Act, co-sponsored by Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., which would grant legalization and eventual citizenship to an estimated 2 million immigrants without papers, who were brought to the United States as children.

Even though such has remained highly popular among voters since former Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, introduced it in 2001, critics have often dismissed it as a piecemeal effort that is inferior to comprehensive immigration reform.

Critics from the right have often insisted that moves to legalize any portion of the immigrant population need to be combined with other measures such as tougher immigration enforcement or increasing the number of temporary agricultural workers. At the same time, critics from the left have warned that focusing solely on “Dreamers” reinforces a narrative of “good immigrants versus bad immigrants” and could prevent the legalization of immigrants deemed less worthy. In addition, some policy analysts have argued that immigration reform can be solved only through grand bargains that address a multitude of challenges, satisfying the wish lists of multiple interest groups.

California’s immigration reforms in the last two decades have proved all of these critics wrong. Instead of tying together various aspects of immigration reform in a package that satisfies liberals and conservatives alike, the state has taken an incremental approach on immigration reform by building public and legislative support year by year, and among Republicans as well as Democrats.

Take Dreamers, for example. The state first approved in-state tuition for all immigrant residents in October 2001, but the law did not include any financial aid provisions. A decade later, the state built on the foundations of its prior law, passing a measure in 2011 allowing all immigrant students to apply for financial aid from its public universities and a law in 2014 creating a state Dream Loan Program using state funds.

The state also approved driver’s licenses for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients in 2012, and followed up in 2013 with a law allowing all immigrants to acquire driver’s licenses.

The state has taken a similar incremental approach to health policy for immigrants. After Congress passed welfare reform in 1996 restricting state health benefits to people without papers, California slowly expanded access to health coverage, first by providing public assistance to pregnant women in that population in the late 1990s, funding health enrollment outreach for mixed-status families in 2013, and then providing state-supported health coverage for all immigrant children in 2015 and for all residents up to the age of 25 in 2019.

California has adopted a similar strategy in expanding immigrant worker protections, economic assistance and deportation protections. Instead of pushing for comprehensive legislation, state lawmakers opted instead for an incremental approach that is sensitive to political and budgetary realities.

California is not alone in this regard. Other states, including Connecticut, Illinois, Oregon, New Jersey, New York and Washington, have passed an array of incremental legislation over the last decade that, taken together, has built up a kind of state citizenship that far exceeds the protections of federal citizenship.

By contrast, ambitious attempts to pass comprehensive reforms in one shot haven’t worked. The 2013 New York Is Home Act, for example, failed because it tied together provisions such as education assistance that had bipartisan support, with other provisions that had far less support at the time, such as expanded access to health care, driver’s licenses and the ability to vote in state and local elections. Only by breaking up this omnibus legislation, and strategically spreading the passage of some of its parts over time, was New York able to inch its way forward on immigration reform.

Congress would do well to heed the lessons from states that have made progress on immigrant integration. It should also learn from its own failed efforts at immigration reform in 2005, 2007, 2010, 2014 and 2020. Instead of dismissing the Dream Act as a partial solution, Democrats and Republicans should see it as a confidence-building step forward, much as what California did in 2001.

The Durbin-Graham bill would formalize through legislation the provisions of DACA, including work authorization and protection from deportation, and create pathways to permanent residence and citizenship. Building bipartisan coalitions for this measure, which has strong popular support, and getting it through Congress would secure an important victory and make future reforms possible.

Karthick Ramakrishnan (@karthickr) is a professor of public policy at UC Riverside. Allan Colbern (@allancolbern) is an assistant professor in the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Arizona State University. They are coauthors of “Citizenship Reimagined: A New Framework for State Rights in the United States.”