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Federal vs. State Immigration Laws

The United States federal government in Washington, D.C., regulates immigration. But states also have some of their own laws that can control immigration in their states.

The rules established in 1952 with the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) are the main ones the government follows today. But, the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 plays a part in curbing illegal immigration. It denied welfare benefits to immigrants without proper documentation. It also strengthened sanctions against employers who hire them.

The U.S. Congress controls all immigration-related regulations. But the White House is in charge of enforcing immigration laws. The INA dictates most aspects of federal immigration law, including visas and other parts of citizenship status. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) manages most immigrant-related matters.

Jurisdiction and the Supremacy Clause

The U.S. Supreme Court has consistently upheld the federal government's jurisdiction over immigration law. SCOTUS has overruled attempts by state legislatures to single out immigrants. The Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution generally means that federal laws trump state laws.

But there are exceptions to this. While states must remain within specific parameters, they have relative degrees of latitude in their laws. States have certain freedoms in determining the laws of their own jurisdictions. For example, California provides more generous benefits to immigrants. It is a "sanctuary state." But, Texas has been notoriously unfavorable to immigrants and migrants. From time to time, the state has successfully restricted those benefits in damaging ways.

Many states have passed legislation that limits immigrants' access to public benefits. Many have directed state and local police to check the legal immigration

statuses of arrestees. Lawmakers pressing for immigration-related state laws typically cite security concerns, limited resources, and a lack of federal enforcement.

Are such state laws constitutional? While state lawmakers have articulated a genuine interest in limiting illegal immigration, there is no clear line in the sand. See State Immigration Laws for a regularly updated, state-by-state directory.

Immigration Laws at the State Level

Perhaps the most notorious state attempt to regulate immigration is Arizona's S.B. 1070, which became law in 2010. The U.S. Dept. of Justice (DOJ) stated in a brief that Arizona lawmakers "crossed a constitutional line" with the new law. A federal judge blocked four of the most controversial elements. These included a requirement that police check the immigration status of anyone they stop or suspect is in the state illegally.

Other states have passed laws with similar police directives, including Oklahoma and Utah. Many state laws mandate using E-Verify to check job applicants' employment eligibility. Many require identification for voting and impose restrictions on public benefits. Restrictions on public benefits include SNAP (formerly food stamps) and Medicaid. They also relate to non-emergency medical care at state clinics.

Lawmakers in some states directly challenged certain parts of the 14th Amendment. They have challenged the provision granting automatic citizenship to those born on U.S. soil. Examples of states that have done this are Arizona and Indiana. Proponents of such laws argue that the Amendment's interpretation should be narrowed to exclude children who are born in the U.S. to immigrants without proper documentation. The U.S. Supreme Court often reviews these controversial bills.

The United States is a federalist system. In other words, states have some freedom to determine their laws. But state governments still must remain within specific parameters in the laws they pass and implement.

Challenges To State Immigration Laws

Immigrant rights groups often challenge these state laws affecting immigration. Civil liberties groups or the federal government sometimes challenge them, too. They especially challenge laws that require proof of citizenship or legal residence. Typically, these lawsuits can cause racial profiling. Requirements that law enforcement checks the immigration status of suspects have also been challenged for similar reasons.

Critics say laws requiring a photo ID for voting violate the Voting Rights Act of 1965. For example, the South Carolina Hispanic Leadership Council once filed a lawsuit against South Carolina. The suit alleged that Senate Bill 20, one of the state's immigration laws, was unconstitutional. Among their grievances, plaintiffs claimed the law's rule that state and local police check the immigration status of any person stopped was unconstitutional. The law passed, but lawmakers removed that provision.

The federal government has challenged many of these state laws based on jurisdiction. It has claimed that a "patchwork" of different immigration laws would not fix the country's immigration system. A DOJ brief accompanying its challenge of the Arizona law included the following statement: "Setting immigration policy and enforcing immigration laws is a national responsibility. Seeking to address the issue through a patchwork of state laws will only create more problems than it solves."

A recently enacted Alabama law (HB 56), considered similar to Arizona's S.B. 1070, also was reviewed in a federal court. But the judge upheld the provision requiring legal status checks during routine traffic stops. Still, lawmakers curtailed some provisions of the law. They removed conditions that were either unworkable or that had unintended consequences.

Other Important and General Information

Local law enforcement agencies often partner with federal agencies that oversee immigration. Law enforcement officials in various states help Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrest immigrants and migrants without documentation.

Some states restrict such partnerships, though. As mentioned earlier, California has done just this. As a "sanctuary state," it has created policies unfavorable to ICE's interests in enforcement within the state. Texas and Florida have tended to do the opposite. Greater cooperation with federal authorities takes place in those states as a result. You can read more about the partnerships between federal and local authorities at the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS's) website.

DHS addresses partnerships related to fighting terrorism on that linked page. But such cooperation can still affect even migrants who have only peaceful reasons for being in the United States. With greater cooperation between federal and local law enforcement comes a greater focus on immigrants in any state. It also means that more resources are devoted in these partnerships to handling people without proper documentation in the United States.

Many local governments work hand-in-hand with the federal government on immigration-related issues. This type of cooperation can heavily impact immigration enforcement in any state.

Contact an Attorney to Discuss Your Questions About Federal and State Immigration Laws

Immigration is a constantly evolving area of law that is far from settled. If you're dealing with immigration issues, naturalization, or becoming a U.S. citizen, you should contact a skilled immigration attorney. They can help you navigate through the system. It's essential to seek the legal advice of a licensed attorney wherever you are. Noncitizens should work with a qualified immigration lawyer. They should do so if they are navigating any issues related to immigration.

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