State Immigration Policy Resource

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May 4, 2017
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State Immigration Policy Resource

May 4, 2017

Although the federal government regulates immigration, states have wide latitude to develop policies to complement or counter federal laws. This has led to a patchwork of policy contexts that shape the lives of legal and unauthorized immigrants and their children across the country.

To illustrate this variation, our State Immigration Policy Resource compiles state-level immigrant and immigration policies in three major areas: enforcement, public benefit access, and integration. 




Our resource shows how much state policies have changed from 2000 to 2016. Here, we highlight three trends.

  1. The growth and decline of agreements that deputize local law enforcement officers to enforce federal immigration laws. Immigration laws passed in 1996 created the 287(g) program, which allows the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to enter into agreements with state and local law enforcement agencies. Under these agreements, designated local law enforcement officers are trained to perform certain functions of federal immigration officials, including identifying unauthorized immigrants in jails or in the community and arresting or detaining immigrants with suspected immigration violations.

    From 2002 to 2010, several law enforcement agencies signed these agreements, though some later chose to end their participation. In 2012, DHS got rid of the program’s task force model, which allowed officials to identify unauthorized immigrants in the community. A 2017 executive order suggests that DHS may once again use the task force model.

    These 287(g) agreements can be signed at the state, county, or city law enforcement level. Because our resource tracks policy only at the state level, we counted the number of states that had agreements at the state level or that had county-level agreements in counties with the largest immigrant populations. The number of states that fit these criteria grew from 4 in 2005 to 21 in 2010, before falling to 11 in 2015. 

  2. Growth of health insurance coverage for low-income, legal immigrant children. Welfare reform legislation in 1996 barred most lawful permanent immigrants from receiving most federally funded public benefits during their first five years with that status. To cover this gap, some states provide state-funded benefits for those who meet other eligibility requirements (e.g., household income below a certain threshold, meet asset tests, and meet work or training requirements).

    States have increasingly chosen to offer public health insurance to low-income lawful permanent immigrant children, following a 2009 policy change that allowed states to use federal matching dollars to provide these children with benefits from Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program. In 2008, 16 states and the District of Columbia funded public insurance for lawful immigrant children during that five-year gap. By 2016, 14 more states provided this benefit.

  3. Increase in support for unauthorized immigrant youth’s higher-education goals. States have also been active in developing integration policies to help immigrants fully participate in society and to foster their economic mobility. One group that has been of particular policy interest is unauthorized immigrant youth who were brought to the country as children and have grown up in the United States.

    To ensure that unauthorized immigrant students are not excluded from higher education, many states offer in-state tuition to all students who have attended school in their state for a certain number of years, regardless of the student’s immigration status. In 2001, California and Texas were the first states to enact these policies. By 2016, 20 other states had established similar policies.

Project Credits

Research: Julia Gelatt, Hamutal Bernstein, Heather Koball, Charmaine Runes, and Eleanor Pratt

Development: Vivian Hou

Editing: Elizabeth Forney and Serena Lei

Design: Christina Baird

Photo credit: Sara Castelan sits with her family and others in an overflow room as the Prince William County board of supervisors discuss a proposed mandate of strict measures that could deny services to unauthorized immigrants in the county, Tuesday, July 10, 2007, at the James J. McCoart Administration Building in Prince William County, Virginia. Photo by Jacquelyn Martin/AP.


This work has been supported in part by an award from the Russell Sage Foundation. We thank them for their partnership. Any opinions expressed are those of the authors alone and should not be construed as representing the opinions of the Foundation. We are very grateful for the policy information and research support provided by Ann Morse and by Tanya Broder and Melissa Keaney of the National Immigration Law Center. And we thank Audrey Singer for her review of this tool.


View this project on Github.

Copyright © May 2017. Urban Institute.

As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.