Honors Thesis Spotlight: Partner or Pariah? How Federal Immigration Gridlock Influences State Immigration Policy

Since its inception, the United States Constitution’s textual command for Congress to “establish a uniform Rule of Naturalization” has served as a formal, yet at times ambiguous, standard for immigration policy. Although the federal government is explicitly tasked with addressing who can become U.S. citizens, the proper scope of state involvement in immigration policy has remained in flux since the early days of the republic. Far beyond naturalization and citizenship requirements, immigration policy today encompasses a wide array of issues ranging from employment conditions and educational attainment to law enforcement and human trafficking. As such, it is without surprise that immigration policy in the United States lies in a precarious condition, cast into constant uncertainty between the duality of federal and state government.

In the three decades since Congress last passed any comprehensive immigration reform, states have faced shifting political, economic, and demographic landscapes resulting from increased immigration. As national discourse continually fails to translate into congressional legislation, state legislatures have taken it upon themselves to chart a course for immigration policy in the United States. This thesis explores how congressional gridlock influences state immigration policy.

Through a novel Theory of Supply and Demand Federalism, it is hypothesized that states are spurred to pass more immigration bills when they face concurrent pressures from citizen demand below and inadequate congressional supply above. The researcher conduct several panel-data regressions from 2008 to 2017 to provide empirical support for this proposed theory. In reviewing the results, I find support for my hypothesis with weaker than expected effects. As a state’s citizenry becomes more liberal, state legislatures are more apt to pass integrative immigration legislation and less likely to pass punitive immigration legislation. In addition, states do respond to congressional inaction with more control-oriented legislation, but this response is weaker than expected.

As congressional gridlock continues to paralyze Congress over immigration policy, states find themselves in a position oddly reminiscent to the nineteenth century when states and localities primarily retained control over their own migration policies. What was true then and what remains true today is that the lack of federal government prerogative induces states to create their own legislation. With the added effect of modern-day political polarization, immigration policy today remains a highly challenged landscape, rife with ideological disagreements, political stalemate, and policy variation. Yet considering this admission, contemporary federalism can be seen as an ever-evolving dynamic, continually adapting to changing factors nationwide. This research provides a novel Theory of Supply and Demand Federalism with implications for other policy areas. How congressional gridlock influences state immigration policy could easily be re-framed to inquire how congressional gridlock influences state gun policy, health policy, abortion policy, and more.

Regardless of which policy domains display this tension between congressional gridlock and state activism, larger questions emerge implicating the foundations of American federalism. No longer a system that resembles what the Founders envisioned, modern-day federalism is a complex, interconnected landscape filled with numerous institutional and partisan constraints. Yet perhaps what is viewed as an endemic defect in modern American federalism is really a foundational strength to modern policymaking. When states must contend with no clear legislative direction and growing citizen ire, perhaps it is preferable that states craft their own legislation on policy issues without clear declaration in the U.S. Constitution. As laboratories of democracy, states serve as policy testing grounds for varying political, demographic, and socioeconomic features. Nevertheless, going forward, as states continue to face these important policy decisions, it remains to be seen whether states will continue to see the federal government more as a partner or a pariah.

Jonathan Guarine is a a Research Economist at Florida TaxWatch where I use my technical training in economics to analyze data and provide practical solutions to pressing public policy issues facing the state of Florida. This post was based on Jonathan’s dissertation abstract. You can learn more about this project here. You can learn more about Jonathan here.

The feature image is from Pexels.

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