Chapters Fight ‘Arizona-Style’ Provisions

Arizona’s State Bill 1070, signed into law in April 2010, contained provisions of deep concern to NASW and its members. At the national and chapter levels, opposition to these “Arizona-style” provisions regarding immigration status reflects the stated ethics and commitments of social workers and the association as a whole.

Individual members and chapters leaders have a number of tools available to help them prevent passage of such legislation and to make the case, with other organizations, for legislative fairness and effectiveness. Three NASW chapters in particular are engaging in their states’ political process to block what are sometimes called “illegal immigration” or “anti-immigration” laws.


“Arizona-style immigration legislation” contains provisions that put additional pressure on both police officers and human services workers to identify and report immigrants who have entered the country without proper documentation. Two controversial provisions in particular include:

  • Requiring police to stop anyone who gives the appearance of being a potential undocumented immigrant and in some cases, to arrest them without a warrant.
  • Requiring human services workers to report clients and patients who give “reasonable” indications of being undocumented.

Similar legislation has passed in a growing number of states. The Migration Policy Institute’s Kathleen Newland said that in just the past six years, 6,600 similar bills have been introduced and 838 were enacted. Twenty-four states currently have such legislation pending.

A guiding principle of NASW’s work on immigration policy is to advocate for comprehensive immigration reform that promotes social justice and avoids discrimination or profiling on the basis of race, religion, country of origin, gender, or sexual orientation.

On its website, NASW outlines concerns about Arizona-style legislation: Permitting police to stop someone based on appearance threatens to increase discrimination and racial profiling, thereby eroding civil rights, along with public trust in police and public safety officers. In addition, immigrants who are victims of a crime may fear contacting the police, fearing they will be arrested themselves.

An increasing number of immigrants are being arrested, detained, and deported due to these state laws as well as agreements between local police departments and the Department of Homeland Security under a set of programs called ICE ACCESS.

“One of many tragic outcomes of these laws is that parents are being separated from their children,” said Amy Bess, senior practice associate in NASW’s human rights and international affairs office. “Focusing on ways to keep families together is an important component of the immigration policy work done by NASW. Many parents who are detained and deported have U.S. citizen children. These laws effectively end up creating a class of highly vulnerable U.S. citizen children inside our own borders,” Bess said.

Newland pointed out that “a hodgepodge of state and local laws is a recipe for confusion among migrants and local businesses about which rules to follow. There’s a real question whether these laws can achieve their objective, which is a more orderly immigration process.”

Like NASW, Newland observed that many laws generate a climate of fear in migrant communities and undermine cooperation with community services. “This becomes a problem of civic integration for the community as a whole.”

Three Bills Defeated in South Dakota

“South Dakota is a very conservative state,” said Marlene Schulz, the NASW chapter’s executive director, “but in 2011 we were able to keep all three anti-immigration bills from leaving committee. In a conservative state like ours, that is quite an accomplishment.”

Schulz said her chapter supports the need for comprehensive immigration reform, but opposes laws which are punitive, or promote racial profiling. She said that the South Dakota legislation closely resembled Arizona’s content, sometimes word for word.

“In South Dakota, less than 1 percent of immigrants are here” without proper documents, Schulz observed. “Even so, crackdown and deportation have a ripple effect across the community. It’s already typical for immigrant communities to mistrust law enforcement. A large percentage of immigrants are political refugees from Africa. There’s a barrier between them and the police when they can be stopped at any time, questioned and asked for their papers.”

The bills also contained provisions requiring social workers and other care givers to take “reasonable steps” if they know a client is undocumented.

“But,” said Schulz, “the law is not clear about what ‘reasonable’ means.”

Schulz described a variety of techniques and tools the chapter used to help defeat the three bills. They formed a coalition to lobby legislators and educate the public. Initial contact with the Catholic Presentation Sisters about support for the Hispanic community led to discussions about immigration bills, and the group was joined by South Dakota Peace and Justice, a Sioux Falls multicultural center, as well as private citizens.

Members of the coalition worked together to strategize.

“Given that South Dakota is a highly conservative, and highly Catholic and Lutheran state,” Schulz said, “we agreed that the Sisters should write and send letters informing both the public and the legislators. In some of our more rural areas, many people haven’t even heard about NASW.”

Together, members of the coalition tracked the three bills through the legislature, putting together educational materials for committee members, sending emails and making phone calls. “It’s a really good coalition,” said Schulz, “because we had so many different contacts between us.” The chapter made personal contact with legislators it supports. Schulz herself testified to the legislature.

Unicameral legislature challenges

Terry Werner, head of NASW’s Nebraska Chapter, tells a similar story of working in an informal coalition to defeat legislation contrary to NASW ethics and policy.

“We were very much aware of the problems and high costs an Arizona-style law would create for Nebraska’s budget and communities,” said Werner. “The bill in question was very similar to Arizona’s. It would, for example, require police to determine the immigration status of persons stopped. It’s an ugly situation and a complete violation of NASW ethics. Legislation like this promotes hate, racism and injustice. It felt like the entire legislative session was an assault on social work values.

“We were part of a coalition with groups like Nebraska Appleseed, ACLU, Interfaith Ministries and Voices for Children. As in South Dakota, the Nebraska Catholic Church has a very powerful voice. We are often on the same side regarding social justice, and they have more political clout than we do.”

Nearly 500 Nebraskans rallied at the state Capitol in January, while the bill was in committee. Participants from around the state represented the League of Nebraska Municipalities; Catholics, Lutherans, and many other faith groups; veterans; the Anti-Defamation League; students; and the Winnebago Tribe. Speakers described the problems and high costs an Arizona-style law would create for Nebraska’s budget and communities.

Following the rally, the coalition launched a campaign against the legislation, building on lobbying they had been doing for several years. The group succeeded in keeping the bill from going to the full legislature.

Werner, a registered lobbyist, said he understands how the state’s government works, as a unicameral legislature with a small number of senators.

“If legislation gets out of committee, it’s very likely to pass, so most of our work is relationship-building at the committee level,” he said.

The Nebraska chapter also makes use of the online Capwiz system, made available by NASW, for mobilizing constituents.

Arizona legislation now in the courts

Arizona’s immigration law (Senate Bill 1070) has been in effect for a year, and continues to move through state and federal courts. Like the Nebraska and South Dakota chapters, NASW-Arizona sees the association at the forefront of the fight for immigration rights, in itself an extension of the civil rights struggle.

Jeremy Arp, executive director of the Arizona chapter, said, “We are watching as the law makes its way through the courts. Mandatory reporting goes against our Code of Ethics, which calls for us to help families, to support their rights, and protect victim populations.”

Arp observed that mandatory reporting also puts local law enforcement in charge of what federal officers should be doing — that is, identifying people who may be present illegally — and this adds pressure to local budgets already under strain.

The Arizona chapter opposed the bill as it made its way through the State Senate, and used Capwiz, which “really helps us target legislators,” to send out two email blasts asking members to call for a veto by the governor. The chapter also added a page to its website providing information about the new law, especially as it affects social workers.

Arp, who became the chapter’s executive director in 2011, said that before passage of SB1070, most of the chapter’s lobbying was budget related. At present he sees the group becoming even more active regarding immigration rights, and expects the chapter’s public policy committee to increase its activity. “We will continue to inform social workers and encourage them to hold legislators accountable. Many NASW members are individual members of state groups opposed to Arizona’s law, such as Border Action Network and No More Deaths.”

What members can do. The South Dakota, Nebraska and Arizona chapter experience suggests ways individual chapters can successfully challenge immigration legislation at odds with NASW policy:

  • Use your chapter for organizing.
  • Form coalitions, informal or formal, with other interest groups. Try matching the right members to the right targets. Who will be the best voice for the cause?
  • Know how the state government works and know who the legislators are. Build relationships with them when possible.
  • Use the support of the national association, such as the Capwiz system. Join NASW’s Advocacy Listserv to receive alerts to take action on current legislation on this topic and others.
  • Stay current on NASW’s Social Justice Priorities.