JMHS ARTICLE: California Dreaming: The New Dynamism in Immigration Federalism


California Dreaming: The New Dynamism in Immigration Federalism and Opportunities for Inclusion on a Variegated Landscape

Roberto Suro
University of Southern California


Interactions between local, state and federal governments as regards immigration policies began to undergo a dramatic change with the passage of Proposition 187 in California in 1994. Seemingly settled issues over the relative prerogatives of different levels of government and even different branches of government have since been the subject of frequent contention in many venues and in many domains of immigration policy. During this period, especially in the last decade, a new dynamism has developed in immigration federalism that is evident in both policymaking processes and policy outcomes.

In policy processes, this dynamism is characterized by an increasingly broad distribution of powers and responsibilities across all levels of government. As a result, an ever-broader array of actors has gained a say over immigration policies. These include not only elected office holders and government officials but also advocates and activists from many sectors of civil society including immigrant communities themselves. Finally, the different levels of government and policy actors do not operate in isolation but rather in vigorous interaction across multiple levels of government and among advocates of different sorts both in the formulation and implementation of policy. This new dynamism is reflected in recent scholarship that describes models of federalism based on discourse, intermediation and collaboration among governments rather than resting primarily on the longstanding constitutional arguments over the balance of power between the states and the federal government.

The policy outcomes produced by this new dynamism are marked by highly divergent and varied results. The federal government devolved some powers over welfare and policing policies regarding immigrants, but implementation by state and local governments was largely dictated by local factors rather than Washington’s intent. Meanwhile, many sub-federal governments have taken the initiative to assume powers on immigration matters. In some cases they have mitigated the punitive effects of being unauthorized under federal rules and have created pathways of civic inclusion for immigrants who otherwise suffer isolation from the body politic. Taking the opposite approach, other jurisdictions have adopted enforcement regimes meant to heighten the impact of federal exclusion. In effect, Washington still exercises exclusive power to determine an individual’s immigration status, but many state and local governments have enacted policies that define the practical consequences of that status.

The paper concludes by positing the likelihood of heightened differentiation on immigration policy on a state and local basis, particularly if Washington remains unable to enact a new policy regime in this area. Instead of a single, dominant federal policy, many state and local jurisdictions will create policies that condition the immigrant experience sufficiently to influence the size and content of migration flows. Across a highly variegated landscape of immigration policies, some places will be welcoming while others will be inhospitable, even hostile, to newcomers. This new dynamism in immigration federalism and the resulting variety of outcomes are products of large, deeply rooted trends in American society that are unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.

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