Who should manage immigration?: Local vs. federal level policy-making


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The failure of the federal government to reform US immigration policy during the past administration has left immigration policy-making to local municipalities.  A recent report by Audrey Singer, et al. of the Brookings Institution on "Immigrants, Politics, and Local Responses to Suburban Washington" illustrates how local officials in Prince William County, VA  responded to the growth of immigrants in their county over the past decade by creating "restrictionist" policies. 

Being a county that witnessed the tripling of their Hispanic population from 2000 to 2006, many long-time residents pressured the county government to crack down on "illegal" immigration by creating legislation without a public hearing to: (1) order the police to check the residency status of lawbreakers and (2) allow the county government to deny business licenses and certain social services to unauthorized immigrants.  Many long-term residents and county officials believe that they lack the infrastructure to support the new immigrant population, while many new immigrants of Prince William County feel that they are being discriminated against.

As the US enters into a deeper recession and if Congress and President Obama choses to delay immigration reform, we may see more local governments adopt "restrictionist" immigration policies.  Should the federal government allow local officials to create immigration policy?


Neil Ruiz

Senior Policy Analyst and Associate Fellow, Metropolitan Policy Program, Brookings

Join the Conversation

Conrad Barwa
March 03, 2009

Multiple issues here; generally speaking though on the macro-level, tackling illegal immigration through crack downs has never really been substantially successful in the long-term. The brunt of the penal efforts tends to bear down on the illegal immigrants rather than the businesses that employ them; indeed a common criticism of industries such as the construction sector in California and the hospitality industry in London is that there is widespread employment of illegals with the benign neglect of the state. Of course, this neglect may turn into activism during a downturn when the issue becomes highly politicised.

As a rule though, policymaking on immigration should be dealt with at the national level, while implementation/enforcement should remain a local concern. Any local response has to be in synch with a national immigration policy as no modern industrial state will cede substantial sovereignty to local authorities on this issue. Apart from security concerns, it makes macro-economic labour policy difficult to co-ordinate and will lead to regional imbalances.

Carlos Damato
March 03, 2009

The Federal Government should enforce current Immigration Laws as they relate to illegal immigration. If they choose not to then the local municipalities should have the right to do so. Not the best solution as you will have a chaotic process which could differ by region. Perhaps by doing so in a couple of areas it might push the issue with the new administration

Please don't mask the problem by labeling it "Hispanic". Illegal doesn't mean Hispanic it means just what it says and those who are here without permission should be prosecuted. And those who hire illegal immigration should be punished. But, don't hind behind the term Hispanic as Illegal Immigration is not a Hispanic problem it is an American problem.