Congress is debating immigration reform, and Americans in communities across the nation - not just in the so-called 'border states' - are taking an interest. That's because immigration has become an issue that has a personal impact. That wasn’t always the case.
It has been more than 40 years since Congress passed major immigration legislation, and back then it was an issue that only a few states grappled with. Until recently, Americans who lived outside of Florida, New York and the southwestern states rarely encountered an immigrant in person.
"They basically saw immigrants on TV. They saw immigrants in national news magazines. They saw them in motion pictures,” says William Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution. “But today they see them at the corner store. They see them up close all the time in all parts of the country."
Frey says immigrants are spreading out, going wherever the jobs are. And there are a lot of them: an estimated 35 million, including 10 million illegal immigrants.
"Fewer than one in twenty Americans were immigrants in 1970,” Frye notes. “Thirty-five years later, it is one in eight, and it is rising."
The sheer number of people coming into the country is only part of the reason immigration is a hot issue for Americans, according to Steven Camarota, Director of Research for the Center for Immigration Studies. He says, statistically, recent immigrants are less educated than native-born Americans.
"About eight percent of adult natives in the workforce lack a high school education. When we look at all immigrants, it is about 30 percent,” Camarota says. “And when we look at immigrants who have arrived in the last five years, it is 34.1 percent.”
But that wasn’t the case 30 years ago, about five years after Congress last passed major immigration legislation. “If you go back to 1970,” Camarota says, “immigrants used to be in some ways at least as educated as natives, in some ways more educated. That has completely changed."
Less education translates into higher rates of poverty. While immigrants make up 16 percent of the population as a whole, Steven Camarota says they account for one quarter of those living in poverty in the United States. And they are relying on public assistance programs, especially government health insurance and nutritional programs like food stamps.
But Camarota is quick to point out the majority of immigrants are working. "The foreign-born are more likely to be in the labor market than the native-born. Foreign-born families are more like to have a worker in their family than the native-born,” he says. “The nature of our modern welfare system is often designed to help low income workers with children. So what you have is a situation in which people work and impose significant costs on taxpayers."
And state governments are picking up more of those costs. “After immigrants arrive, states are responsible for a range of programs that affect their success in the country," says Ann Morse, Program Director for the Immigrant Policy Project at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
"State and local governments provide 93% of funding for education,” she says. “States partner with the federal government in providing health care. States provide a range of nutritional programs. They look at making sure there are job-training programs. They provide law enforcement. You can see immigration, as it increases the resident population of states, has an effect on a lot of state programs."
So, perhaps not surprisingly, states aren't waiting for Congress to pass immigration reform legislation. To deal with the rising number of immigrants in their communities, legislators in 42 of the 50 U.S. states have already introduced well over 300 bills related to immigration this year. The measures address a wide range of issues such as human trafficking and law enforcement, who should receive benefits such as food stamps and health care, and ways to protect immigrants from fraud, which could serve as models for federal lawmakers now debating the same issues.