In the national immigration debate, anti-immigrant rhetoric is at a fever pitch generated by politicians bent on inciting a cultural war and exploiting the fears many Americans have about their economic situation and how their communities are changing. But to truly understand the role of immigrants in the United States, we must look to the states and localities where immigrants live. In spite of efforts by fear-mongering politicians to divide us, both “red” and “blue” states have a proud history of advancing policies that acknowledge and encourage the contributions of all members of their communities, regardless of where they were born.
In the midst of monumental national policy debates, it is just as critical to focus on the immediate needs of immigrant and refugee families, and the communities where they feel the most direct impact. While year after year the focus has been on the “failure” of federal immigration reform, we have seen local governments enact measures to make college more accessible, to increase public safety by ensuring access to driver’s licenses, to provide children with access health care, and to keep families safe.
Even amid troubling times for immigrant communities, there is plenty of reason to be hopeful. As our communities grapple with the uncertain fate of young immigrants who have Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, for example, I look at the fact that three out of four foreign-born residents live in a state where eligible students can pay in-state tuition at public colleges and universities, regardless of their immigration status.
Our national conversation is divorced from the reality Americans experience every day. For so many of us, immigrants are part of our families. They are our coworkers, neighbors, and friends. We need policies that recognize what Americans overwhelmingly know to be true, which is that immigrants are vital to the fabric of our society.
According to a recent Gallup poll, nearly three-quarters of Americans think immigration is overall a good thing. It found that 62 percent of Americans support keeping immigration at its present level or increasing it, and a majority of Americans support updating our immigration laws, including providing a road to citizenship for those currently here without documentation. Across the country, there are neighbors looking out for the friends of their children, and employers with a stake in the well-being of their employees, irrespective of where they were born.
This reality is yielding tangible and positive outcomes. The Republican-controlled Senate and Democratic-controlled House in Colorado came together last month to renew the state driver’s license policy and make the application process more accessible to immigrants. In New Jersey, advocates have obtained financial aid for undocumented students this year, and they have a robust agenda underway to send to the governor bills supporting driver’s licenses and keeping local law enforcement and immigration enforcement separate. This is the kind of work we must shine a strong light on, especially in the current political climate.
The fight to protect and advance the rights of immigrant families and communities can draw from the lessons of one of the most transformative social movements in recent years, the marriage equality movement. To ensure that love was equally recognized under the law, same-sex marriage advocates recognized that they needed policy change at the federal level, at the U.S. Supreme Court. But to achieve that, they needed to show that the country was ready. They set out to accelerate the passage of marriage laws at the state level, while building national public support.
As advocates, we need to amplify the victories at the state and local levels, and change the story that we are telling about our immigrant community members and their contributions. That is one way to turn down the volume on the anti-immigrant rhetoric at the federal level. More inclusive policy changes at the state and local levels, coupled with narrative that reflects the reality of who immigrant communities are, can create the conditions for federal policymakers to finally listen to their constituents and eventually step up and do their jobs. It is not only the right thing to do, it is what the American people want.
Marielena Hincapié is the executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, an organization that defends the rights of immigrants.