New California Laws Protect Illegal Immigrants

New California Laws Protect Illegal Immigrants

By Lou Cannon - October 23, 2013

Casting aside a long history of inhospitality, California has now become a virtual sanctuary for the estimated 3.5 million illegal immigrants who live within the borders of the Golden State.

A spate of bills passed by the Democratic-controlled Legislature and signed into law earlier this month by Gov. Jerry Brown, who was actively involved in their passage, allows these residents to obtain driver’s licenses, become lawyers and qualify for in-state tuition at California’s university and college systems. Several states extend one or more of these benefits to such immigrants, but under its new laws California will do much more.

The primary—and inter-connected—concerns of these California pilgrims, more than two-thirds of whom hail from Mexico, are deportation and harsh working conditions. Historically, illegal immigrants anywhere are reluctant to complain about low pay or bad treatment on the job because employers could report them to authorities and have them deported. Under one of the new laws signed by Brown, they will be paid overtime if they work more than nine hours per day.

Even more important, employers are now barred from turning in their employees to federal immigration authorities without cause or saying anything to them that would “induce fear” of deportation.

The most far-reaching change of all is a bill known as the Trust Act, which prohibits law enforcement officers from turning over persons they detain to immigration authorities except in arrests for major felonies or sex crimes. Law enforcement objected to a more expansive version of this measure, which Brown obligingly vetoed in 2012. This year he worked with the bill’s authors to get a version acceptable to police and prosecutors; the enacted measure largely follows the practice of the Los Angeles Police Department, the state’s largest police force.

The LAPD, and many other police agencies, resent being used as arresting officers by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, better known as ICE. Police say they need support in immigrant communities to do their jobs of protecting the public and that this won’t happen if residents fear that cooperation would make them subject to questioning—or deportation—by federal authorities.

No one knows with certainty how many people will be affected by the Trust Act, but the number runs into the scores of thousands. Despite recently easing its policies, the Obama administration has deported nearly 2 million illegal immigrants, more than were deported during the entire two terms of the George W. Bush administration. One estimate says that 100,000 such residents were picked up last year in California alone and turned over to ICE. It is not known how many of them were detained for minor offenses, but the issue is a touchy one in immigrant circles since many in this group have U.S. family ties.

California politicians are sensitive to the complaints of Latinos. In signing the bills, Brown could not resist a jab at Washington, where a comprehensive immigration measure cleared the Senate with bipartisan support in June but has bogged down in the Republican-controlled House. “While Washington waffles on immigration, California’s forging ahead,” he said.

Throughout his long political career, Brown has enjoyed strong support from Latinos. He received more than two-thirds of their votes in winning election by a landslide in 2010 and is widely expected to seek re-election next year against what so far is token opposition.

Latinos are now 39 percent of California’s population, according to recent estimates. Many are too young to vote and others are disinterested in politics and do not register to vote in proportion to their numbers. Even so, Latinos were 20 percent of the electorate in 2012, and their participation increases from election to election.

The growing power of Latinos in electoral politics and their overwhelming Democratic preference helped the party win a super-majority in the Legislature in 2012. So on a crass political level, one could say that the Democrats who passed the bills were repaying an important constituency that helped send them to Sacramento.

But more is involved than electoral politics. Traditionally, California tended to seek Mexican workers when times were prosperous and labor was scarce and reject them in hard economic periods. The extreme example came in the Great Depression when Mexican-Americans, some of them U.S. citizens, were rounded up and unceremoniously dumped across the border. Some of the Mexican workers who were expelled in this way were welcomed back during World War II, when labor was particularly scarce.

Ever since, California attitudes toward illegal immigrants, known in the Latino community as undocumented workers, have mirrored the unemployment statistics. In 1994, when California voters passed Proposition187 in an effort to deny them health and educational benefits, Southern California was suffering from a recession caused by the implosion of the aerospace industry. (Most of the initiative was later invalidated by the courts.) The most memorable TV commercial of that campaign, done for Gov. Pete Wilson, who was seeking re-election, showed Mexicans streaming across the California border while a voice-over ominously intoned, “They keep coming.”

After his re-election Wilson defended this much-criticized commercial by saying it was accurate: illegal immigrants kept coming. And so they did, according to the figures of the Pew Research Center, until 2008, when the Great Recession and tight border enforcement reduced the flow. As a consequence, the illegal immigrant population has remained relatively stable and become non-threatening to most Californians. Perhaps significantly, a Pew report in September found that illegal immigration is once more surging in many states—but not California, where the number of such residents is about the same as in 2007.

So even though unemployment in the state remains two points above the national average, there is presently no hue and cry against illegal immigration. Even some Republicans supported the new laws and the legislators who opposed them offered more nuanced and thoughtful criticism than in the past. For example, State Assemblyman Rocky Chavez, a Republican from northern San Diego County, said the measures approved by the Legislature could reduce the desire of illegal immigrants to become citizens.

“Once we erase all these distinctions, what’s next?” he told The New York Times. “What is going to convince someone that it’s essential to get citizenship?”

The question may be valid, but against it should be weighed against the freedom from fear—to use a coinage of President Franklin D. Roosevelt—that will now be enjoyed by law-abiding illegal immigrants living in California. Since the Golden State achieved statehood in 1850 it has had a history of bringing in successive waves of immigrants—Mexican, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino—when it needed them and turning against them when it didn’t.

But the times they are a-changin’. 

Lou Cannon, who is traveling in Scotland, has written about the campaign for RealClearPolitics.

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