In the mid-2000s, the largest anti-immigrant group in the country, the extreme Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), saw an opportunity to introduce anti-immigrant bills at the local level in towns that had seen a major increase in the number of immigrants residing there. FAIR’s legal arm, the Immigration Reform Law Institute (IRLI), used these small towns as a “field test” for anti-immigrant legislation – drafting it and pitching it to the city council or other elected officials, who would then introduce the proposed legislation. IRLI’s plan centered on seeing what provisions of these anti-immigrant ordinances, such as banning immigrants from renting property, would hold up in court.
Almost ten years later in some cases, a few of these small towns such as Famers Branch, Texas, are still involved in court battles over the laws, racking up millions of dollars of legal fees in the process. IRLI, and more specifically Kris Kobach, the Kansas Secretary of State, represents the towns. Due to public fallout and the skyrocketing costs of defending these ordinances in court, IRLI’s plan derailed and towns no longer introduced the IRLI-drafted legislation. In 2010, Kobach attempted to coax the city of Albertville, Alabama, into working with IRLI and introducing an anti-immigrant ordinance. The city council rejected Kobach’s advances, with one member stating, “The advice I have gotten from towns which passed similar resolutions said they would not do it again.”
At the state level, FAIR and IRLI worked with Pennsylvania State Representative Daryl Metcalfe, who has a history of espousing anti-immigrant rhetoric, to bring together like-minded immigration restrictionist politicians in a coalition named State Legislators for Legal Immigration (SLLI). Just a few months after SLLI’s founding in 2007, Dan Stein, president of FAIR, and Mike Hethmon of IRLI joined Metcalfe at a press conference. At the press conference, SLLI announced that it had “entered into a working partnership” with IRLI. Essentially, IRLI works with SLLI members to draft anti-immigrant legislation which the SLLI member then introduces in his/her state legislature. This partnership had been effective, most notably in Arizona where then-SLLI member Russell Pearce worked with IRLI to draft the harshest anti-immigrant bill at the time, SB 1070 which passed in 2010. Alabama’s HB56, another stringent anti-immigrant bill drafted by IRLI, passed in 2011 but was not introduced by an SLLI member. SLLI members introduced a number of “copy-cat” bills in states around the country during this time.
From 2011 onwards, state lawmakers began to introduce more pro-immigrant legislation such as granting drivers licenses to undocumented immigrants and bills granting in-state tuition for undocumented students. At the same time, the number of copycat SB1070 bills declined as the Supreme Court deemed many of its provisions unconstitutional in 2012. After the 2012 election, SLLI’s membership declined by some 30 percent and the coalition began to slip into dormancy. The coalition only issued one press release to date in 2013, urging U.S. Senators to reject the immigration reform bill drafted by the “Gang of Eight” in the spring of 2013. This bill, S. 744, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act passed the Senate in June 2013. As of November 2013, SLLI’s website no longer lists the members of the coalition.
From 2011 to the present, anti-immigrant groups at the state level, with help from national anti-immigrant groups such as FAIR and NumbersUSA, were unable to prevent these pro-immigrant bills from passing in states such as Maryland, Oregon and California. To counter this, the anti-immigrant groups are seeking to stop and overturn this legislation by attempting to gather enough signatures to qualify for a ballot initiative.
The results of this tactic are mixed. In Maryland, anti-immigrant groups such as Help Save Maryland (HSM) gathered enough signatures for a referendum to overturn the Maryland DREAM Act, which grants in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants in the state. Maryland residents voted on the referendum in November 2012 and were overwhelmingly in favor of the DREAM Act. This was a resounding defeat for the anti-immigrant movement. In 2013, Oregonians for Immigration Reform (OFIR) the state’s major anti-immigrant group, gathered enough signatures for a referendum set for the 2014 mid-term elections in an attempt to overturn a law granting driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. As was the case in Maryland, national anti-immigrant groups have also provided support to OFIR in this effort.
According to the National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL), more immigration measures were enacted at the state level during the first six months of 2013 than the entire calendar year of 2012. The overwhelming majority of this legislation is pro-immigrant, with in-state tuition benefits and the granting of driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants being two of the most popular. With this trend set to continue in the future, there is every indication that anti-immigrant groups will continue their strategy of attempting to overturn pro-immigrant legislation by referendum.
After the recent passage of a number of pro-immigrant laws in California, Californians for Population Stabilization (CAPS), the most powerful anti-immigrant group in the state, told members it is “exploring and pursuing ways [lawsuits, referenda} to fight the current slew of state legislation promoting endless population growth.” New Jersey, a state where a bill granting in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants recently passed the State Senate and is pending in the State Assembly, is another possible candidate for a referendum signature campaign by anti-immigrant groups in 2014.
Though the anti-immigrant movement is certainly playing defense in many states, this does not mean that this is the case in every state. In 2012, FAIR hired staff to fill two newly created positions in the organization: a State and Local Associate as well as a State and Local Director. Both are tasked with helping state legislators draft anti-immigrant legislation. In Wisconsin, a state lawmaker recently introduced a bill to make English the official language of the state. There also remains the strong possibility of a state with a traditionally large percentage of conservative voters approving an anti-immigrant ballot measure. In 2012, Montana voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure denying state-funded services for undocumented immigrants.