U.S. Immigration: A Primer for State Policy Makers



Alternative TextThis primer for policymakers is intended to provide a clear and concise introduction to current immigra­tion and refugee policy, trends in state immigration legislation, and key studies that seek to assess fiscal and economic impacts of immigrants in the United States.

Immigration policy remains in flux. Since January 2017, the Trump administration has issued many execu­tive orders and policy changes related to immigrants, refugees and foreign visitors. Several of these chang­es are under review by the courts. Most recently, The Supreme Court of the United States ruled on June 26 to uphold the administration’s third version of the travel ban to the U. S. In Congress, 771 immigration-related bills have been introduced.

On the Horizon

Immigration policy will continued to be refereed in the courts. Still pending is a decision on whether to continue or end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

The House failed to pass two immigration bills in June, including border enforcement, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals,legal immigration and enforcement. Congress may yet consider legislation addressing the attorney general’s recent announcement of a “zero tolerance” poli­cy of criminal illegal entry, leading to the separation of children from parents at the U.S.-Mexico border.

The administration issued an executive order addressing family sep­aration, expected to draw legal challenges and require future legislative action.

Whatever the results of the Supreme Court’s decision, congressional leg­islation, or administrative action, state policymakers continue to seek bipartisan, pragmatic solutions to immigration challenges, recognizing the contributions of immigrants and working together to ensure safe communities.

“States are coming up with innovative ways to address immigration is­sues—in education, health care, and economic development—that the federal government can learn from to improve our immigration system.”

Senator René García (R-Fla.), co-chair NCSL Task Force on Immigration and the States

“States see the role immigrants can play in their economies and are able to find common ground in devel­oping local solutions. Ultimately, federal action is needed, and inaction has costs.”

Senator Mo Denis (D-Nev.), co-chair NCSL Task Force on Immigration and the States

This publication was made possible by the generous support of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

For more information on immigration and refugee issues, visit www.ncsl.org/immig.


Immigration is a federal responsibility, set out in the U.S. Constitution under the power of Congress to “es­tablish a uniform rule of naturalization.” It is governed by the president, five executive agencies, and U.S. Supreme Court decisions. In brief, federal immigration law sets the parameters for who and how many foreign-born people can enter the U.S., and the conditions for their work and residence.

State and local governments develop policies that affect immigrants af­ter their arrival, working with federal partners in areas such as refugee resettlement and immigration enforcement, and assisting immigrants in becoming integrated into the nation’s social, political and economic life. State legislatures consider more than 1,200 bills each year related to im­migrants, and on average enact 200 laws relating to budgets, education, employment, driver’s licenses, health and human services, human traf­ficking, and law enforcement.

As federal policymakers debate reform of the U.S. immigration system, common ground and practical lessons can be found at the state level. States have made decisions about eligibility for benefits such as in-state tuition and driver’s licenses, entered into partnerships on criminal immi­gration enforcement and employment verification with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and created streamlined paths for profes­sional licenses for immigrant professionals in demand.

This issue brief provides a concise introduction to the U.S. immigration system of permanent, temporary and humanitarian arrivals, as well as unauthorized immigration. Sec­tions cover legal immigration, refugee resettlement, economic and fiscal impacts, and state level demo­graphics and legislation.