California Gives Immigrants Here Illegally Unprecedented Rights, Benefits, Protections

Melanie Mason, Los Angeles Times, August 11, 2015

It started with in-state tuition. Then came driver’s licenses, new rules designed to limit deportations and state-funded healthcare for children. And on Monday, in a gesture heavy with symbolism, came a new law to erase the word “alien” from California’s labor code.

Together, these piecemeal measures have taken on a significance greater than their individual parts–a fundamental shift in the relationship between California and its residents who live in the country illegally. The various benefits, rights and protections add up to something experts liken to a kind of California citizenship.

The changes have occurred with relatively little political rancor, which is all the more remarkable given the heated national debate about illegal immigration that has been inflamed by GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump.

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Democratic lawmakers and immigration activists, with diminishing opposition from the GOP, continue to seek new laws and protections. These measures include cracking down on employers withholding pay from low-wage workers and expanding state-subsidized healthcare to adult immigrants without papers.

These new initiatives face obstacles, but backers say such hurdles center on the hefty price tags of the programs, not political fallout from the immigration debate.

California officials have been spurred into action in part by the lack of action in Washington to overhaul the nation’s immigration system. The stall in Congress has motivated advocates to push for changes in state laws. But they acknowledge that their victories are limited without national reform.

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Karthick Ramakrishnan, a public policy professor at UC Riverside, calls what’s emerging “the California package“: an array of policies that touch on nearly every aspect of immigrant life, from healthcare to higher education to protection from federal immigration enforcement.

Other states have adopted components of the package; Connecticut, for example, offers in-state tuition and driver’s licenses, and passed legislation known as the Trust Act to help limit deportations before California did.

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Most of these laws were passed after 2000, and became especially plentiful after 2012, when President Obama took executive action that shielded from deportation people who were brought to the country illegally.

California was one of the first states to authorize driver’s licenses for those affected by Obama’s order; two years later, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law enabling all immigrants in the U.S. illegally to seek licenses. The same year, the state expanded in-state tuition for more students in the country illegally and allowed people without legal status to obtain law and other professional licenses.

There have been symbolic wins too, such as a law last year to repeal vestiges of Proposition 187. The initiative, which overwhelmingly passed in 1994, denied immigrants in the country illegally access to public services; it had been mostly overturned by the courts. And on Monday, Brown signed a measure striking the word “alien”–seen as derogatory to those not born in the U.S.–from the state’s labor laws.

Still, advocates at times have fallen short. They made the expansion of healthcare coverage a signature issue in recent years, but the estimated price tag of such proposals runs in the hundreds of millions of dollars. So far, they’ve notched a narrower victory–$40 million in the most recent state budget to provide Medi-Cal coverage to children younger than 19 regardless of legal status.

Brown also vetoed a measure in 2013 that would have allowed legal immigrant residents to serve on juries, saying in his veto message that “jury service, like voting, is quintessentially a prerogative and responsibility of citizenship.”

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Brown has appointed a number of noncitizens in the country legally to state agencies and departments, according to his office.

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The shift in the GOP’s tone is coming in part because of demographic realities–Latinos have surpassed whites as the largest ethnic group in the state, and California’s sizable Asian population also has large numbers of immigrants.

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