State lawmakers in Virginia and across the country are weighing a host of bills aimed at preserving driver’s licenses and other benefits for undocumented immigrants who may lose the protected status long afforded them by the federal government.
Immigrants from Central America, Haiti and Sudan will see their temporary protected status expire over the next 18 months, while the fate of 690,000 participants in the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remains deeply uncertain after bills to protect “dreamers” failed in Congress this week.
Participants in either DACA or TPS generally qualified for driver’s licenses and in-state college tuition even in states where those privileges are otherwise unavailable to undocumented immigrants. Now, with the programs in jeopardy, lawmakers in about a dozen states are arguing that those immigrants should not be pushed into a shadow economy after living in the United States for decades.
“Because of the change in national rhetoric, it’s going to be a really interesting year at the state level, in terms of how states are going to portray themselves as welcoming or not welcoming to certain immigrant populations,” said Ann Morse, who oversees an immigration project at the National Conference of State Legislatures. “There is a real public debate going on that is just getting started.”
Some jurisdictions, including Maryland and the District, already provide driver’s licenses and in-state tuition rates to undocumented immigrants who don’t have federal protections but are longtime residents.
In other states, the attempted local “fixes” to President Trump’s hardened immigration policies vary in ambition. Some stand little chance of passing in Republican-controlled legislatures, while others are driven by Democrats who are in the majority in their statehouses and are seeking to create safe havens.
In Iowa, Democrats are pushing a Dream Act that would allow in-state college tuition for undocumented immigrants, similar to laws that already exist in Maryland, California and Illinois.
In New York, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) issued an executive order last month preserving driver’s licenses for DACA recipients whose protections expire, while legislation in the state Assembly seeks to keep driving privileges and state-funded Medicaid benefits for immigrants from Central America, Haiti and Sudan who had been granted TPS.
Maryland’s General Assembly is considering a bill that would make it easier for people who benefited from DACA or TPS but haven’t lived in the state long to take advantage of the state’s Dream Act.
Democrats in Virginia introduced three bills seeking to preserve driver’s licenses and in-state tuition for those populations, though Republicans in control of the General Assembly did not let the bills out of committee.
“We want productive people who are putting forward benefits to the Commonwealth,” said Del. Jennifer Boysko (D-Fairfax), who sponsored an in-state tuition bill aimed at DACA recipients and argued the bills will help Virginia businesses fill jobs. “This legislation would just make it better for everybody.”
Immigrant advocates say the White House’s tougher stance on immigration has sown fear across the country, even as recent federal court rulings have forced the federal government to continue renewing DACA work authorizations. With proposals to legalize dreamers failing in Congress on Thursday, state officials and advocates are bracing for a surge of immigrants vulnerable to deportation in their midst.
In California, which last fall passed a law to become a “sanctuary state,” officials are allocating portions of $45 million in annual immigration-related funding for legal assistance to people fighting to remain the country and to help DACA recipients apply to renew their status.
“The vision that’s been pursued in California is one of inclusivity, where we’re making sure that immigrants remain part of our state and are eligible to work here and contribute,” said Layla Razavi, policy director at the California Immigrant Policy Center.
Alexandria, Va., resident Manuel Lopez and his daughter Xiomara Lopez, 23, have been nervously tracking the federal debate and efforts in Virginia to preserve their state-issued driver’s licenses if they lose their protections from deportation.
The father has had TPS since 2001, when a 7.6 magnitude earthquake ripped through El Salvador, killing nearly 1,000 people.
His daughter, who joined him in the United States later, successfully applied for DACA in 2012.
Both work at a supermarket and see the potential loss of their driver’s licenses as an obstacle to keeping their jobs.
“This is having a huge impact on our family,” Manuel Lopez said. “The anxiety has kept me from sleeping at night.”
Steven A. Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, said that although such cases can garner sympathy, any immigrants who have not been granted legal permanent residency by the federal government should know that their standing in the United States is tenuous.
If a person’s immigration status changes, Camarota said, state governments “should not be subverting” federal law.
Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg, legal director of the Legal Aid Justice Center’s Immigrant Advocacy Program in Virginia, said it’s unrealistic to think that several hundred thousand immigrants who’ve come to consider themselves American will pick up and leave once their status changes. If they’ve been contributing members of society, he said, state lawmakers should help them hold on to their jobs or continue attending college.
“It’s not like they’re losing their legal status because they committed crimes,” Sandoval-Moshenberg said.
Luis Andrade, who is also from El Salvador, says he is unsure what he’ll do when the temporary legal status he’s renewed repeatedly since 2001 expires in September of next year. He expects he would have to shut down the food-truck business he owns in Woodbridge, Va., if he loses his driver’s license and a federal work permit that is tied to his legal status.
Andrade, 43, used to work in construction and was proud to help rebuild the Pentagon after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“We were there at 4 a.m. the next day looking for people who were trapped,” he recalled.
He saved enough to set up his food business, which sells Mexican and Central American food to office workers out of three trucks in Woodbridge.
These days, he said, his mind is mostly on his two sons, ages 5 and 10.
“They ask me: ‘Papi, are you going to leave? Will you take us? We’ve never been to El Salvador,’” he said. “I tell them: ‘We have to wait and see.’”