This last Saturday, immigration reform advocates unleashed a major show of force in more than 180 locations in 40 states around the country, to remind Congress that the country still desperately needs immigration reform and that the time is now to pass it. With the government still shut down and Congress appearing more unable to work together than ever, some commentators have advising that Washington look elsewhere for models of where government is working right. At the New York Times today is an editorial suggesting that Congress take a page from California’s book, where Governor Jerry Brown has signed a series of immigration bills that stand to dramatically improve the lives of immigrants, including a bill that allows them to legally drive and a bill that makes it harder to deport those who have committed no crimes. As the editorial states:
As this stalemate continues, those seeking positive action should look to California, where a Democratic governor, Jerry Brown, a Democratic-controlled Legislature and a Republican Party conspicuously lacking in Tea Partyers have made strides in advancing a sensible immigration agenda. If the goal is to lessen the problems caused when a huge population lives outside the law, while protecting civil rights and public safety, then California — home to an estimated 2.5 million undocumented immigrants — is setting a good example.
On Saturday, in a powerful rebuke to the Obama administration and Congressional inaction, Mr. Brown signed the Trust Act, a law that will make it harder for federal agents to detain and deport unauthorized Californians who are non-criminals or minor offenders and pose no threat. “We’re not using our jails as a holding vat for the immigration service,” Mr. Brown said. That same day he signed a bill to allow qualified undocumented immigrants to become licensed as lawyers.
On Thursday, he signed a bill to allow driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, which advocates welcomed as a means to safer roads and greater economic opportunity. This followed earlier bills allowing legal permanent residents to work in polling places for elections and granting new labor rights to domestic workers, a largely immigrant work force whose members are often exploited and abused. A measure that awaits his signature would allow legal permanent residents to serve on juries. Together the bills put California far on the leading edge of expanding immigrant rights while finding humane, sensible solutions to a problem Washington refuses to solve.
California hasn’t always been a leader on immigration. Just a couple of decades ago, it was the opposite, when then-Governor Pete Wilson (a Republican) pushed for the passage of the vengefully anti-immigrant Prop 187 in 1994–and drove an entire generation of Latino voters to vote for Democrats. Since then, immigration and the impact of Latino voters has been a major current in California politics, and (most) legislators there have come to understand that–as Latino Decisions principal Gary Segura put it– “demography is relentless.”
That’s a lesson that some House GOPers in Washington still need to learn. California has taken action, and Congress and President Obama need to figure out how to make a similar impact on immigration. As the New York Times editorial continues:
The states cannot fix the whole system, of course, or legalize anybody. But they can try to address issues and prod Washington by example.
The question, as always, is whether and when Washington can be prodded to extend greater rights and possible citizenship to unauthorized immigrants. The shadow existence of 11 million people is unsustainable and mass deportation is not an option. The Obama administration has fed this fantasy; President Obama is on the brink of setting an ugly record — the deportation during his time in office of two million people, of whom only a fraction are dangerous criminals. More than 100,000 people have been deported since the Senate passed its bill in June.
But his former homeland security Secretary, Janet Napolitano, who has just taken over as the head of the University of California system, told students last week that she had urged Governor Brown to sign the Trust Act, the law written to curb the excesses of the very department she once led. It’s encouraging evidence that once outside the fog of Washington, the head clears.