Should They Stay or Should They Go? Examining Legislator Behavior on State Immigration Policy

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Undocumented immigration used to be the concern of only states that shared a southern border with Mexico or that contained traditional immigrant gateway cities. No longer. Immigration legislation made the policy agenda in all 50 states in 2007, with 46 states enacting into law a total of 240 immigration-related bills. These bills reflect state legislators' intent on managing the largely Latino undocumented immigrant population, with some legislators working to enact legislation that either restricts or expands this group's access to state benefits. Understanding the personal-, district-, and state-level influences on state legislator behavior in this policy arena is important for understanding the relationship between entrenched power and the representation of disempowered minority groups in the U.S. federal system. The immigration policy arena heightens the salience of both legislators own racial and ethnic characteristics and those of their constituents, making it ideal for assessing legislators' representational roles.

This dissertation builds upon and challenges the scholarly literature in the two separate, but linked, fields of state immigration policy and Latino descriptive representation. Prior scholarship on state immigration policy has focused entirely on state immigration policy adoption, leaving scholars none the wiser of legislators' substantive representation of Latino interests in this context. Additionally, several scholarly works have found that Latino legislators offer descriptive representation to Latino interests--representation based on a common ethnic tie beyond that which can be attributed to constituency and party influences--but these findings have been limited by their analysis of Latino descriptive behavior only in states with large Latino populations. This dissertation's analysis of a new, expansive database of state legislator behavior on state immigration policy at the bill sponsorship, committee referral, and floor voting legislative policymaking stages in both chambers of 49 state legislatures challenges conventional scholarly knowledge of the representational role of legislators on Latino issues. It finds that legislators' substantive and descriptive representation of Latino interests is contextual based on the type of legislation and the stage of the policymaking process. Latino legislators' descriptive representation is further confined to whether the legislation threatens the largely Latino undocumented immigrant community.