Immigration reform, slowed in D.C., moves ahead in California 

click to enlarge This photo taken Sept. 12,2013 shows women reciting the "Oath for a House United" as they gather before blocking an intersection outside the House of Representatives on Capitol Hill in Washington, to protest Congress' inaction on comprehensive and inclusive immigration reform. - AP PHOTO/CAROLYN KASTER
  • AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
  • This photo taken Sept. 12,2013 shows women reciting the "Oath for a House United" as they gather before blocking an intersection outside the House of Representatives on Capitol Hill in Washington, to protest Congress' inaction on comprehensive and inclusive immigration reform.

Frustrated by the House of Representatives' continuing inability to pass comprehensive immigration reform, the California Legislature last week decided to try its own piecemeal approach.

While state agricultural leaders continue to cry out to the federal government to help them address a severe labor shortage, California lawmakers passed a law that will at least allow the undocumented farmworkers already here to legally drive to work.

While immigrant-rights advocates continue to beseech Congress to take action to allow an estimated 11 million people now living in the United States illegally to come out of the shadows, California lawmakers passed a law forbidding local police agencies from facilitating the deportation of people for such reasons as committing a traffic violation or selling tamales without a permit.

Inaction in Washington, D.C., has led to an opposite reaction on the West Coast.

Gov. Jerry Brown said as much last week when he announced a change of heart on a long-controversial proposal to allow people living in California illegally to obtain driver's licenses, albeit specially marked licenses that will prevent them from being used for federal identification purposes.

"This bill will enable millions of people to get to work safely and legally," Brown said in a statement issued by his office. "Hopefully, it will send a message to Washington that immigration reform is long past due."

The Democratic governor wasn't the only one making his frustrations known.

On Thursday, on the final day of the legislative session, a handful of Republican lawmakers joined business advocates to announce that 15 GOP legislators had sent a letter to their partisan colleagues in the state's House delegation urging them to quit stalling and "call the vote" on comprehensive immigration reform.

A few of the GOP lawmakers followed through by casting their own votes for piecemeal reform in California. Two Republican senators and two Republican Assembly members joined with Democrats to vote in favor of the driver's license bill.

Among them was Assemblyman Jeff Gorell, of Camarillo, who told me his vote reflects "a growing sentiment in the Republican ranks to get immigration resolved."

Gorell abstained on the so-called TRUST Act, which prohibits local law enforcement agencies from detaining someone as a result of a hold requested by federal immigration authorities, unless that person has been convicted of a serious crime or arrested on suspicion of committing a felony.

A former prosecutor, Gorell abstained even in the face of opposition from the state District Attorneys' Association. "There were things I liked about it and things I didn't like," he said. But he felt that a vote against it would have "muddled the message" about the urgent need for the House to fix a broken immigration system.

It remains to be seen whether Brown's frustration will contribute to a change of heart on the TRUST Act. He vetoed a similar bill last year, but said he would rethink the issue if what he considered to be "fatal flaws" in last year's bill were fixed.

The list of crimes for which a hold could still be permissible was expanded this year, a change that addressed at least some of the flaws Brown cited in his veto.

There were other elements to California's piecemeal immigration reforms, including passage of a bill to allow someone living in the country illegally who has passed the bar exam to be admitted to the State Bar.

The case that inspired the bill was the denial of a law license to a young man who came to California as a child, is protected against deportation by current federal policy, graduated from a Chico law school and passed the bar exam on his first attempt.

While California waits with growing impatience for Congress to act, Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, said there is "a movement toward a rational discussion to make appropriate adjustments with state laws."

When such legislative proposals came up in the past, opponents had a boilerplate response backed by foolproof logic: Immigration is a federal issue, they would say.

After so many years of federal inaction, that argument has been turned on its head, particularly in California, where the problems of a broken system are more acute.

It's a federal issue, sure, but if Congress does nothing to fix it, then it seems the state has an obligation to step in and take whatever stopgap steps it can.

Timm Herdt covers state government and politics for the Ventura County Star.

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Timm Herdt

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