Forget Executive Orders – States, Civic Leaders Leading the Way on Real Immigration Reform

With the mood in Washington tense after President Obama’s unprecedented and legally questionable executive action on immigration, conservatives can find guidance outside the Beltway. Republican governors, of course, are frustrated with the president’s unilateral action. But governors and other civil society leaders at the state level are advocating for strong enforcement and accountability measures coupled with a commitment to free enterprise. As conservatives wrestle with what to do next, their work deserves a closer look.

Republican Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder calls himself the most pro-immigrant governor in the country. Concerned about population declines in areas like Detroit, Snyder has sought to staunch the exodus. In his State of the State address this year, Snyder announced an executive order creating the Michigan Office for New Americans meant to embrace immigrant entrepreneurs, encourage foreign students getting advanced degrees to stay in Michigan, and protect the market for agricultural and tourism workers. The office is also designed to connect immigrants with support for housing, healthcare, job training and other opportunities from non-profits, foundations and the private sector.

Michigan Immigration

In Utah, lawmakers pushed to expand the number of temporary guest workers, with Utah’s Republican governor, Gary Herbert announcing “Utah is not Arizona,” after Arizona passed its controversial immigration enforcement law. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (commonly known as Mormons) has played a prominent role in welcoming immigrants to that state, with Mormon leaders meeting President Obama in the Oval Office to discuss immigration reform and seek compromise. Church leaders endorsed what is known as the “Utah Compact,” five principles championing free enterprise, family stability and law enforcement, backed by various public and private officials. The Catholic Church, a powerful, culturally conservative institution in states across the country, shares similar principles.

In Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker has said a lawsuit may be warranted against the President for his executive action. Yet, Walker has also endorsed the 2013 Senate immigration bill and a path to citizenship, saying a reformed immigration system would help Wisconsin dairy farmers who are heavily reliant on immigrant labor. He also backed away from his initial support of the strict Arizona immigration law.

Scott Walker

Govs. Scott Walker of Wisconsin (center) and Rick Perry of Texas (right) discuss immigration reform at the Republican Governors’ Association in November.

In Texas, as Heritage Foundation fellow Mike Gonzalez points out, Republican Gov. Rick Perry has led the state’s Hispanics, including a large proportion of immigrants, to improve educational outcomes, employment opportunities and entrepreneurship (especially relative to California, another huge state with a large Hispanic immigrant population with weaker outcomes, led by Democrat Jerry Brown). Perry backed Texas legislation seeking to give immigrants in-state college tuition, a policy that harmed him during his 2012 presidential run. Perry has been a vocal supporter of federal immigration reform, especially through strong border enforcement, and he criticized Obama’s power grab last week.

Similarly, in Hispanic-heavy Florida, newly re-elected Republican Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill granting in-state tuition for immigrants, though he pitched the idea in tandem with his own proposal to place limits on how much state universities can raise tuition each year. He also expanded the state budget to hire more court advocates and fund safe houses and rehabilitation for child victims of trafficking. These children are much more likely to be immigrants than non-victims.

Rick Scott

Florida Governor Rick Scott passed a law that gives in-state tuition to immigrant students.

Despite mainstream media hyperbole, a substantial component of the center-right movement backs immigration reform (including 30 percent of Republican Senators who voted for the June 2013 reform bill), especially those bolstering the free market. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which gives predominantly to Republicans, is led by Tom Donahue, who points out that some 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies in the United States were started by immigrant entrepreneurs or their children. Combined, he reports, those enterprises pump $4.2 trillion in annual revenue into the U.S. economy. Immigrants are behind tech and business giants like Google, Yahoo, Big Lots and BJ’s Wholesale Club.

“Employers are often unable to hire high-skilled foreign-born professional workers — even those who are educated in the United States,” Donahue wrote. “Why? Because hiring caps were set more than 20 years ago when our economy was one-third its current size. Congress hasn’t allocated visas for a single temporary foreign worker to legally enter our country for lesser-skilled year-round jobs — even if a business can’t find sufficient numbers of qualified and interested Americans through rigorous local labor market recruitment.”

Conservatives in Washington have ample reason to be upset with President Obama’s power grab, particularly when Republican governors across the country have already led the way by striking the balance between enforcement and openness the American people support.

 Carrie Sheffield is the Senior Writer at Opportunity Lives. You can follow her on Twitter @carriesheffield.