Lawmakers expand immigration rights - Brian W. Jones

Lawmakers expand immigration rights

SACRAMENTO — California Democrats this year advanced an aggressive agenda to expand immigrant rights with support from a handful of Republicans intent on rebuilding the party’s image among Latinos...

that has suffered ever since the ferocious fight over Proposition 187 nearly two decades ago.

The Legislature has sent to the governor a number of bills affecting unauthorized immigrants, including marquee measures to allow them to obtain a driver’s license and to help prevent those arrested for minor crimes from being deported,

“It was a watershed year,” said Sen. Lou Correa, D-Santa Ana.

Republicans routinely drew praise from Democrats for supporting some of the bills. But the vast majority of Republicans opposed the bills for a variety of reasons, contending they rewarded people for illegal behavior and tied the hands of law enforcement.

Moreover, 15 GOP lawmakers sent a letter to Congress demanding that it enact long-stalled immigration reforms that would include a pathway to citizenship and more guest workers.

“As Republicans we believe in opportunity for all,” said Sen. Tom Berryhill, R-Fresno. “It’s time for us to put those words into action.”

Many of those signing the letter did not vote for the disputed measures.

There remains strong dissent in some quarters to the direction in state Capitol.

“California politicians have been tolerating, promoting, and encouraging illegal immigration for many years now. This is just the latest example of the political class in Sacramento trying to curry favor with various special interest groups for political advantage, “ said Peter Nunez, a former U.S. attorney in San Diego.

Still, the mood today is a far cry from 1994, when then-Gov. Pete Wilson, former mayor of San Diego, was propelled to re-election partly based his ability to tap into voters’ resentment toward unauthorized immigrants.

Wilson promoted passage of Proposition 187, written to block those here illegally from receiving most public services, including health care and schooling. Following a heated campaign, the initiative passed with a large majority, but it was later ruled unconstitutional by the courts.

Ironically, Wilson defeated Kathleen Brown, sister of California’s current governor. Jerry Brown has pledged to sign the driver’s license measure and is expected to approve most, if not all, of the immigrant rights bills on his desk. The legislative year ended Thursday and he has until Oct. 13 to act.

“A lot of these measures would be rendered moot if Congress would act,” said Sen. Anthony Canella, R-Ceres.

Canella said Republicans have to take reasonable steps or risk remaining in the minority. He said the party is still struggling to repair the damage done by Proposition 187.

“You can’t (quickly) erase 20 years of ignoring the issues,” he said.

Not all Republicans are ready to support new rights to those here illegally.

Assemblyman Brian Jones, R-Santee, was one of those who voted against most of the immigrant related bills. In addition to being against the policy in some cases, Jones said they represent a piecemeal approach by California when Congress should be leading the way on what he considers a federal issue.

“As Americans, we need to find a compassionate, caring solution to this immigration challenge,” he said. “The first challenge is to secure our borders. The second challenge is to find a way for people to have residency status.”

Jones said Republicans have become more accepting over the past 20 years, “We collectively woke up and realized we’re Americans. This is not how Americans treat human beings,” he said.

Sandra Vargas, who tracks immigration issues for the California Catholic Conference, said the once heated rhetoric has been toned down, making progress more possible.

“There’s more talk about this being a human issue,” she said.

That’s reflected in the success of legislation. “We haven’t seen a list like this for years,” Vargas said.

Lawmakers passed about a half-dozen key immigration-related measures this year. The most sweeping drew only a couple of GOP votes, but Democrats were able to assure they were to Brown’s desk thanks to their huge majorities in both houses.

“State legislators moved our state closer to making California a better place to live for all immigrants,” said Christian Ramirez, human rights director for the Southern Border Communities Coalition in San Diego.

Ted Hilton, president of the Taxpayer Revolution group in San Diego, says the latest round of measures goes too far.

“Providing a license is one more incentive to remain here,” he said. “What Congress and state legislatures need to do is move millions of welfare recipients into the jobs held by unauthorized workers.”

Some of the major bills:

• Driver’s licenses: AB 60 would allow those here illegally to obtain a driver’s license that will have a special designation and notation that it cannot be used for identification to board planes, register to vote or collect benefits. It drew three Republican votes.

• TRUST Act: This measure would prohibit local police from turning those arrested for relatively small offenses over to federal authorities for deportation hearings. No Republican voted for AB 4.

• Jurors: This bill would allow noncitizens who are in the country legally to sit on juries. AB 1401 passed without a single Republican vote.

• Lawyers: AB 1024 would allow someone who has passed the state bar to practice law even if they are here illegally. It drew 13 Republican votes. The bill was carried by San Diego Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, a Democrat.

• Immigration advisers: This bill would impose regulations on lawyers and consultants who are advertising that they can help unauthorized immigrants receive permission to stay in the country. AB 1159, also carried by Gonzalez, passed unanimously.

• Workplace retaliation: SB 666 has a provision to prohibit employers from retaliating against workers by threatening to report them or members of their family as being in the country illegally. Five Republicans voted for it.

• Poll workers: AB 817 would allow noncitizens who are legal residents to serve as poll workers. It passed with just one Republican in support. Gov. Brown has already signed it.

San Diego Union-Tribune