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Groups hope to chart alternative immigration reform course for states

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WASHINGTON – Progressive groups said Monday that the pendulum on state-driven immigration reform has swung back from efforts like Arizona’s SB 1070, creating a climate that makes it possible to push for alternative immigration reforms.

Speakers at a forum sponsored by the Center for American Progress and the American Constitution Society outlined six state immigration reform efforts they hope to see take root as an alternative to the “papers please” method of immigration enforcement under SB 1070 and copycat bills in other states.

The proposals include measures that would make it easier for immigrants to get driver’s licenses or in-state tuition and harder for states to hand over to federal authorities people who are suspected of being here illegally, among other measures.

“These plans are agnostic in that they are meant to help immigrants regardless of their legal status,” said Pratheepan Gulasekaram, an associate professor of law at Santa Clara University, at the event.

The proposals were criticized by at least one advocate of tougher immigration reform as “practically amnesty” for immigrants here illegally. Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, called the alternative plans “self-defeating.”

“Giving driver’s licenses to people who are here illegally does nothing except help hide the fact that they are here illegally,” he said, pointing to just one element of the plan. “Giving licenses to them to honor one law to cover up breaking another is self-defeating.”

But supporters said the measures are “pro-integration” and seek to better accommodate immigrants.

Arizona was the only state that had not adopted any of the six goals as of February, according to a report by the Center for American Progress. But speakers said that at least one proposal – for a so-called “trust act” – has been introduced and could gain traction in the state.

Trust act legislation limits the ability of a state to detain immigrants who may be sought by the federal government. California recently enacted such a law.

“Arizona recently introduced their version of the Trust Act and if it got support from the national level, I’m sure it could pass,” said Lorella Praeli, spokeswoman for United We Dream, a youth-immigrant organization.

Mehlman said trust act legislation “makes it easier for immigrants who commit crimes to go free” even if U.S. Immigration Customs Enforcement officials want the person detained.

He was also concerned about the cost of the proposal to grant in-state tuition or financial assistance to undocumented immigrants.

“Everyone agrees that an education is key to getting ahead, but our resources are finite and if we are paying for the educations of people who are not legally part of the system, our budget is in trouble,” Mehlman said.

But Karthick Ramakrishnan, an associate professor of political science at the University of California, Riverside, said law enforcement agencies were part of the backlash against SB 1070 in Arizona.

“Businesses pushed back because they thought it hurt them,” Ramakrishnan said. “Law enforcement pushed back. The courts pushed back.”

Gulasekaram agreed, saying law enforcement disliked the law because it strained their resources for immigration enforcement duties that should have been left on the federal level. He and Ramakrishnan co-authored a report this month that said reaction to Arizona’s role as a “leading proponent of restrictive legislation” is what gave “pro-integration” reform proposals a springboard.

But Gulasekaram said the battle over SB 1070 is not over yet, noting that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down three of the law’s four main provisions in 2012 but let stand the section that lets local authorities check the legal status of immigrants against a federal database.

“There is still a chance to strike that provision down,” Gulasekaram said. “But only if it’s proven that it’s being abused.”