Immigration 2011: Deportation, 'Administrative Amnesty,' Harsh State Laws

Record deportations, "administrative amnesty," and harsh state laws marked 2011's immigration policy.

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State Immigration Laws

Frustrated with illegal immigration, several states have followed Arizona, which in 2010 passed a controversial law tough on illegal immigrants.

Lawmakers in Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, and other states have faced a backlash for strict laws from human rights organizations and from federal appeals courts. Several aspects of state laws have been blocked by the courts—including Alabama's provisions that immigrants carry documents proving their legal status and that schools check immigration status of students.

Aside from human rights concerns, critics also point to the economic consequences, like agricultural labor shortages, which meant farmers have had to watch viable crops rot. Additionally, according to Craig Regelbrugge, co-chair of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform, unstable and enforcement-only immigration laws have caused some farmers to abandon high-value crops—like fruits and vegetables, which require a lot of hand labor—and move toward low-value crops—like soy beans and corn, which farmers use machines to harvest.

And when that happens, Regelbrugge says, "you essentially see the economic engine in these local communities sputter and virtually stall out."

In those cases, workers who paid for rent, taxes, and groceries move on. American jobs in the community are also at risk, he explains. "It's the shop keepers and the tractor dealers and the fertilizer supplier," he says. "After these high-value crops leave the farm, that stuff all goes away."

But Heritage's Zuckerman sees the controversy over states' actions as a matter of federalism. States need to look at the unintended consequences of laws, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't wade into immigration law, she says.

"The federal government has the supreme power as far as national security," Zuckerman says. "But ultimately, we do believe the states have the right to do what they're doing."

A final answer to the question of the state laws' constitutionality may be coming next spring or early summer, when the U.S. Supreme Court is set to rule on Arizona's law.

For those who fear a nation of 50 different immigration policies, the Supreme Court's decision to take up the case is a light at the end of the tunnel.

[Should the Supreme Court Rule Arizona's Immigration Law Unconstitutional?]

"It highlights in a very pointed and visibly public way how problematic it is that we're engaged in this state-by-state skirmish over immigration," says Marshall Fitz, director of immigration policy for the left-leaning Center for American Progress. Immigration policy, he says, "has to be decided by the federal government, because you cannot have 50 states going in 50 different directions."

Congressional Inaction

The states and the president have acted on immigration for one very clear reason: Congress has not solved the problem.

Budget, deficit, and debt-ceiling battles embittered an already partisan climate on Capitol Hill, making cooperation on such a controversial (though vital) topic even harder.

But some policy experts see reason to hope.

The negative reaction to the state laws by a broad swath of stakeholders—faith communities, businesses, human rights organizations, state and local politicians of both parties, and others—could signal an opportunity, they say.

"Did we have to hit bottom before we could start to head back toward the surface and maybe re-establish a more sensible conversation?" wonders Fitz. "Different people come at it from different perspectives," he says, "but I think the fact is that there's a strong consensus in the electorate that we've got to do something more realistic, more pragmatic about the current undocumented population."

[Read: Chamber of Commerce, Bloomberg push immigration reform.]

And a few public opinion polls signal left and right may be moving closer together, perhaps creating that environment for compromise.

According to a Fox News poll taken in early December, 63 percent of Americans favor increasing legal immigration and 66 percent believe illegal immigrants should be allowed to remain in the United States and eventually qualify for citizenship if they meet certain requirements. Even a majority of Republicans—63 percent—favors a path to citizenship.