How does a freshman Democrat in a Republican-dominated Arkansas Legislature pass a bill on an emotional issue like illegal immigration?
By making it about less emotional issues like economic development and professional licensure. Also, handwritten notes help.
House Bill 1552 by Rep. Megan Godfrey, D-Springdale, will let the Board of Nursing grant licenses to students covered by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy – those young people brought to America illegally by their parents.
The bill became necessary after the board stopped granting licenses in 2017 because it believed it needed clearer legal authority. Some students had the rug pulled from under them after they had enrolled in nursing school.
Illegal immigration is the hot-button issue most associated with electing President Trump. The Legislature is 75 percent Republican.
Democrats can get laws passed, but it’s often the name-the-state-dinosaur variety. But Godfrey, 35, passed a progressive-sounding bill 90-0 in the House and 23-4 in the Senate. And she did it a few months after being elected by beating a Republican incumbent by 29 votes out of 3,689 cast.
The bill could serve as a blueprint for Democrats in the future.
– First, she made the issue not about illegal immigration but about economic development and licensure. Many believe Arkansas has had too many rules making it too hard for people to earn a living. This bill makes one less. Its narrow scope – only nursing licenses and only DACA participants – made it easier to support.
– Second was the human element. It’s one thing to oppose illegal immigration. It’s another to look across a committee table at a hopeful young nursing student brought to America at age 6 by her parents and educated at taxpayer expense. That face belonged to Rosa Ruvalcaba Serna, a senior UAMS nursing student. In fact, her story alerted Godfrey to the legislation’s need.
“It was so important to illuminate the humanity of this issue, that this is not an immigration issue that feels far away in Washington, D.C., or something that we can’t handle,’” Godfrey told me in the Capitol cafeteria. “This is an issue that impacts real Arkansans and neighbors and folks who may be taking care of us in the hospital or at the doctor’s office.”
– Third, you need Republican allies. Nine of the bill’s 13 co-sponsors were Republicans, including Rep. John Payton, R-Wilburn, a cowboy hat-wearing conservative. Godfrey assumed he’d be opposed, but he surprised her by calling her at home and asking to co-sponsor the bill.
The Senate co-sponsor, Sen. Lance Eads, R-Springdale, was not a surprise. A Springdale Chamber of Commerce executive, he told me he’s seen the effects of the nursing shortage and knew if the state didn’t make those future nurses feel welcome, they’d go to places like neighboring Oklahoma, which already grants the licenses.
– Fourth, you must be able to deal with people. Godfrey hand-wrote a note to every member of the House and Senate committees that would consider the bill.
– Finally, it helps to have passion. Godfrey is co-director of the English as a Second Language program at Fayetteville Public Schools, so she interacts with young immigrants on a daily basis. She speaks Spanish. The bill mattered a lot to her.
The bill helped set the tone for what turned out to be a good session for Godfrey. Relatedly, she was the only co-sponsor of House Bill 1684, which once signed will grant in-state college tuition rates for DACA students and others. The primary sponsor, Rep. Dan Douglas, R-Bentonville, co-sponsored Godfrey’s nursing bill.
A Democrat can do everything right and still not pass most of their bills. The nursing bill worked out in Godfrey’s favor for many reasons, including because it was the right thing to do. As she pointed out, a legislator can be a build-the-wall hardliner on illegal immigration but want Rosa Ruvalcaba Serna to earn an honest living as a nurse in her home state.
“It was a win-win for these kids, these young adults who want to work and want to be nurses and want to help us all out … and I think people want, they want to have the vote that helps the young woman at the end of the table continue her story.” she said.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist in Arkansas. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.