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Immigration and the Power of American States

April 12, 2017
Plain English Version

Supporting a California bill that stops local police from investigating immigration violations. CreditLucy Nicholson/Reuters

The struggle goes back to the writing of the Constitution. Thirteen colonies became the first thirteen states of America. The Constitution became the governing document. It spelled out the rights of the individual (the Bill of Rights). As important, it said what the duties of the federal government were and what the powers of the states would be.

Every state wrote its own State Constitution. Who is in charge of what? The federal government or the state government? The battle between federal and state powers has gone on for 230 years. Often, it is the U.S. Supreme Court that makes the final decisions.

Immigration -- who can come into America -- is the job of the federal government.

Over the last thirty years, millions of Mexicans without papers crossed the border to the U.S. Millions of other Mexicans came on tourist or school visas and stayed after the visas expired.

Democrats want to grant most of these Mexicans a “legal status.” Republicans want to remove most of them from the country. President Trump is a Republican.

There is a federal agency. It is Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). It enforces immigration law. It removes undocumented immigrants. Some cities and states say they are resisting ICE removals. They call themselves “sanctuaries.” They want to help the undocumented, not remove them.

There are states with big numbers of undocumented such as California and New York. Police in those states come across immigrants all the time. Often they stop drivers for traffic violations. The police then run the immigrants’ names through a federal computer file. The file may find they are undocumented. It is routine for the police to then notify ICE about the person. At that point, ICE may issue a ‘detainer.’ A detainer is a request to hold the person.

If the person is not a criminal, the states (and cities) may decide not to hold the person for ICE. If a person is a criminal, the police will treat the person like other criminals. They will hold or release the person. The different outcome depends on whether the violation is a crime or just a minor violation. The police detain the most serious criminals. ICE will pick them up.

There are many strong feelings about the future. Some states want to protect the undocumented. Others do not. Big questions include: Will the sanctuary towns and cities work with ICE? What are the duties of states and cities to enforce federal laws?

The Supreme Court has a new justice. Immigration cases will come up for the Court. A clash between states and the federal government is coming.

Source: The New York Times April 10, 2017

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