Faculty Spotlight

Helping Local Policymakers Cut through Politics of Immigration Law

Kendra Sena


As states and municipalities continue to actively engage federal immigration policy—some embracing it, and others resisting--Kendra Sena, Senior Staff Attorney for the law school's Government Law Center, looks to educate local policymakers to help them understand their choices.

"State and local lawmakers have a lot of discretion when it comes to immigration enforcement.  And there are always implications when you react to federal policy," says Kendra. "What is at stake for your town? How do your decisions affect federal grant-making? Are you opening yourself up to legal liabilities? Are there limits in local laws or charters, or in the state or federal constitution? Even efforts to stay neutral involve complicated choices."

Her work seeks to help decision-makers at the state and local levels understand their options and the legal implications, particularly around today's fast-moving and volatile immigration issues. Working with a research assistant, Kendra is building a catalog of "explainers"—short policy papers designed to help policymakers and others understand the complex laws that apply to state and local governments' choices about immigration policy. Each explainer briefly reviews the law in a specific area, and provides links to further resources.

"Local governments have taken different approaches to immigrants in their communities.  Some have adopted local legislation to limit local entanglement with federal immigration enforcement, sometimes known as 'sanctuary' policies.  Others have considered deputizing their police force to act as immigration agents," says Kendra. "A number of states issue drivers' licenses to all drivers, including undocumented drivers.  New York is not one of those states.  But an increasing number of New York cities plan to issue municipal IDs to their undocumented residents.  And each of these policy choices involves a look into state, local, and federal law."

Before joining the GLC, the Harvard Law graduate served in counsel's office in the N.Y. State Senate. "My role there was to analyze and explain proposed legislation pending before the Senate.  We often had access to position papers from advocacy groups, but rarely a neutral explanation of the law," she said. "I hope these explainers will fill that gap."

The explainers align with the new GLC goals recently articulated by director Ava Ayers.

Explainers to date include the following

When Local Law-Enforcement Officers Become ICE Deputies: 287(g) Agreements

(Click here for Explainer)

The role of state and local law enforcement in carrying out federal immigration law varies from one municipality to another. Traditionally a federal power, immigration enforcement is increasingly dependent upon willing state and local law enforcement agencies to execute federal priorities. While the vast majority of state and local law enforcement agencies have remained neutral—neither accepting nor declining to enforce federal immigration law—some state and local law enforcement agencies have willingly taken up the charge.

Driver's Licenses and Undocumented Immigrants

(Click here for Explainer)

The issuance of driver's licenses is a state function.  Each state is responsible for determining the requirements to acquire a license in that state, including proofs of identity and residency.  An increasing number of states are considering whether to issue driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants.  This explainer will outline the legal basis for extending driving privileges to undocumented immigrants, including the limitations on states imposed by the federal REAL ID Act.

Municipal IDs: Local Governments and the Power to Create Identity Documents

(Click here for Explainer)

In an effort to better integrate their immigrant communities, a number of local governments across the country are issuing resident identification cards known as "municipal IDs."  This explainer will outline the various reasons a local government may choose to create a municipal ID and the mechanisms by which such a program may be adopted.  It will then discuss how municipal IDs interact with state and federal law, and some of the privacy and other concerns that have arisen in localities across the country with municipal IDs.

Immigrants and Public Benefits: What Must States and Localities Provide? 

(Click here for Explainer)

Public benefits for noncitizens are a source of great controversy, but exactly what public benefits do noncitizens receive?  The Equal Protection Clause generally requires that states and localities give noncitizens the same benefits as citizens.  But Congress sometimes requires that states and localities treat noncitizens differently.  This Explainer reviews the laws that govern this complicated area, and offers resources for people trying to navigate it. 

"Sanctuary" Jurisdictions 

(Click here for Explainer)

Although the topic of "sanctuary" jurisdictions is much-discussed, the term "sanctuary" has no legal meaning.  State and local governments face a complicated set of choices about how to interact with federal immigration authorities.  Four major policy questions must be considered.

 First, states and localities have to decide whether to contribute resources to federal immigration enforcement efforts. Second, they must decide whether to detain noncitizens at the request of federal authorities. Third, jurisdictions can limit the extent to which they share information about noncitizens with the federal government--although every jurisdiction, even "sanctuaries," shares significant amounts of information about noncitizens.  Finally, states and localities may try to limit the extent to which immigration agents can physically access state-controlled properties, like jails and courthouses. 

 In each area, there is a spectrum of choices available, from full cooperation to neutrality to active resistance.  This explainer identifies the actions state and local governments have taken, and identifies resources for policymakers who wish to learn more.

U Visas

(Click here for Explainer)

A U Visa is a temporary visa for victims of certain crimes who have been helpful in the investigation or prosecution of the crime. The purpose of the U Visa is to "strengthen the ability of law enforcement agencies to detect, investigate, and prosecute" certain serious crimes and to protect victims.

The U Visa is an important tool for local governments to build trust with immigrant crime victims and communities and to strengthen enforcement efforts against those who target immigrants. This explainer gives an overview of the U Visa and the role of state and local government officials in the U Visa process.