With no US immigration reform, states are stepping in

Denver (AFP) - Humberto Cruz Salas lives in the United States illegally. But in September, the Colorado resident got a state-issued driver's license.

Despite the lack of progress on immigration reform at the federal level, a growing number of states are offering greater rights -- and more documents -- to undocumented immigrants.

"I was kind of speechless," said Cruz Salas, of the day he received his precious driver's license, which expires on September 9, 2017.

The 21-year-old was born in Oaxaca, Mexico, but he left at age three and has never been back.

All his memories are from the United States, where he pays taxes and speaks perfect English. But the fear of being arrested and deported never goes away.

Starting in August, Colorado became the 10th US state to offer driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, in the name of improving safety on the roads. Less than two years ago, only three states authorized licenses.

Printed on the card, in large letters, is a warning it is not recognized at the federal level. But it allows Cruz Salas, who lives near Denver, to drive legally, get insurance and avoid problems with police.

"I drive around a lot safer now. I'm not constantly paranoid," said Cruz Salas, who, like millions of undocumented immigrants, had been driving without a license.

"There's still that fear that there's a cop behind you, but it's not the same because you know you have a license with you."

- No legal status yet -

Meanwhile, the aspiring college student is still awaiting permanent legal status.

His two sisters, 18 and 24, will soon get two-year work permits, through a program created by President Barack Obama in 2012.

But Cruz Salas wasn't able to do the same, because of an arrest for drunk driving when he was 18 -- "probably the worst mistake I ever made."

He hopes Obama will keep his promise to bring more undocumented migrants out of the shadows.

"My whole life is here," he emphasized. "I went to pre-school here, I finished high school here."

"I really have a lot of hope that one day it's going to come through," he said of immigration reform. "Hopefully it doesn't come too late when we're not here anymore."

Most US politicians concede that the current situation must change: between 11 and 12 million undocumented immigrants, most Mexican, live and work in the United States.

But in 2006, 2007, and 2013, legislative overhauls failed to pass, blocked by opposition from conservative lawmakers to any sort of "amnesty."

This federal gridlock has prompted a growing number of states to act in a domain where they don't technically have jurisdiction -- to better integrate illegal immigrants, especially young ones.

- Center of gravity 'shifts' -

Colorado is now one of 17 states to give in-state tuition rates -- instead of the higher out-of-state fees -- to illegal immigrants. That puts the cost at around $6,000 a year instead of $16,000 at the University of Colorado, Denver.

For Cruz Salas, who works 50 hours a week in two restaurants to save up, the difference is crucial, because he is not allowed to apply for federally subsidized student loans.

Meanwhile, local police have recently stepped back from roles as immigration enforcers.

After the September 11 attacks, explained Muzaffar Chishti of the Migration Policy Institute, the federal government passed several agreements with states for police to verify the immigration status of people they arrested.

But after a 2012 Supreme Court decision and Democratic gains in a number of local elections, states have increasingly abandoned this role, Chishti said.

Today, in Colorado, police don't call federal authorities if they arrest an undocumented immigrant.

"We came from so far away," said Catherine Brown, a lawyer who was involved in efforts to pass Colorado's new law on licenses.

"In the past few years, the fear of being deported has been reduced," she said, though "it's never over."

Some areas remain out of reach such as welfare and government health care, which, except in rare cases, explicitly exclude illegal immigrants.

But states and cities are continuing to tackle immigration issues, such as in New York and California in particular, where the Democratic governor has, since 2013, championed a series of pro-immigrant laws, including on professional licenses, student loans and workplace discrimination.

"This is becoming a slam dunk for many of these measures," Chishti said.

"You will see trends in both directions," he added, "but the center of gravity has shifted."