Miller Center

Riding The Tiger

“I discovered that being a President is like riding a tiger. A man has to keep on riding or be swallowed.” Harry S. Truman

Immigration Federalism: Why It Matters for National Reform

In the wake of the 2012 election, immigration reform is one of the seemingly most critical priorities for both Republicans and the Obama administration. Yet, immigration remains one of the most divisive issues in politics today. Given the partisan differences over approaches to immigration reform and ongoing divisions within both parties, it is unclear what, if any, major federal reforms can actually be achieved in Barack Obama’s second term. While the nation waits for a breakthrough on immigration reform, states and local governments have increasingly taken on responsibilities pertaining to immigration in response to the failure of the federal government to act. Last week, the Miller Center hosted a GAGE colloquium featuring Carol Swain of Vanderbilt University, who discussed immigration federalism and the prospects for policy innovation and change as a result of state and local involvement. Swain argued that “state invention can be a positive force for change because it offers new possibilities for innovative policy solutions” and that “state action can become the needed boost that Congress needs to stop kicking the can down the road and begin to exercise its power under the Supremacy Clause to reform the policy.”

Swain argued that the rise in state action on immigration has been the result of a growing incentive to be involved as states respond to the necessity of local enforcement, the lack of federal enforcement, and the need to integrate new immigrants into their societies. According to Swain, changes in immigration patterns have brought noncitizens into new regions of the country and the cost of unauthorized immigration has fallen unevenly across levels of government. Furthermore, since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the federal government has increasingly relied on states to assist with immigration law enforcement.