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Lou Cannon: In Paradox, States Play Conflicted Role in National Immigration Debate

With national immigration reform stymied by partisan division, several states have extended privileges associated with U.S. citizenship to millions of unauthorized immigrants. At the same time, states are leading the legal charge against President Barack Obama’s executive orders protecting up to 5 million immigrants from deportation.

California is in the forefront of states accommodating unauthorized immigrants. Hundreds of thousands of them flocked to 150 Department of Motor Vehicle offices and four special processing centers last month as the Golden State rolled out a law allowing anyone 18 and over to obtain a driver’s license after passing road-knowledge and driving tests.

Two of three individuals who took the written test in a language other than English failed to pass on the first try. Even so, the DMV licensed 40,000 new drivers in January and is on track to reach a three-year goal of 1.4 million new licenses.

The new law has been largely welcomed by law-enforcement officers as a safety issue. Julie Powell, a spokeswoman for the California Highway Patrol, said that requiring unauthorized immigrants already on the road to pass a driving test and obtain insurance will bolster public safety.

California’s liberalized policy on driver’s licenses is the latest in a series of laws that have eased the lives of unauthorized immigrants, called “undocumented” by their advocates and “illegal” by their detractors. California is home to nearly a fourth of all such immigrants in the United States — 2.8 million out of 11.6 million, according to Pew Research figures.

In 2014, California enacted 26 laws on immigration, many removing long-existing barriers. Unauthorized immigrants in California can now receive subsidized health care, student loans and financial aid, and licenses to practice law and medicine. Child welfare courts no longer make immigration status a determinant of guardianship.

These laws reflect the liberal political leanings of a state where Democrats hold every statewide office and control the Legislature. More fundamentally, they reflect a sea change in public perceptions of Latin American and Asian immigrants, not long ago regarded as a drain on the state.

In 1994, California voters approved a ballot initiative intended to deny educational and medical benefits to unauthorized immigrants. Courts found most of this initiative unconstitutional but vestiges remained on the books until 2014, when they were repealed at the behest of Latino legislators.

A recent survey by the Public Policy Institute of California found that Californians are more likely to say that immigrants are a benefit to California because of their hard work and job skills (63 percent) than to say that immigrants are a burden to the state because they use public services (32 percent).

A solid majority (69 percent) support Obama’s executive action of Nov. 20, 2014, that could shield as many as 5 million immigrants from deportation.

It’s not only California where attitudes and laws are changing. Ten states and the District of Columbia now issue driver’s licenses to unauthorized immigrants and another three states offer conditional licenses. Eighteen states grant immigrants in-state college tuition. Five states — California, Minnesota, New Mexico, Texas and Washington— provide financial assistance for immigrant students.

On the other side of the coin, a lawsuit filed by 26 states would roll back Obama’s executive orders and make it easier to deport immigrants. Texas, which originated the suit, demonstrates the paradox of the states’ response to illegal immigration. On the one hand, the Lone Star State provides financial aid to immigrants; on the other, it spearheads a lawsuit that could speed their deportation.

The lawsuit seeks to block implementation of Obama’s immigration orders, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA), which the federal government will roll out in May. These programs will shield from deportation the “Dreamers” who were brought to the United States illegally as children and parents who’ve lived in the United States continuously for at least five years.

Texas, led by Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican who was the state attorney general when the lawsuit was filed, chose the federal court in Brownsville, Texas, in the hope of drawing U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen, known for conservative views on immigration issues. The case was indeed assigned to Hanen, who has heard arguments and could rule at any time.

Whatever Hanen decides, the ruling will be only the beginning of a protracted legal battle. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, one of 33 big-city mayors who have filed briefs in support of Obama’s executive orders, anticipates that Hanen will rule against them but expects the orders to be upheld on appeal. The U.S. Supreme Court has long held that immigration is a federal responsibility.

Meanwhile, the debate continues in Congress and the states with dim prospects for substantive reform. Neither side has distinguished itself.

Those who oppose the anti-deportation orders often cite risks to public safety, despite studies showing that unauthorized immigrants commit fewer crimes than the general population.

But immigrant advocates also exaggerate. Their claim, for instance, that border security is adequate was exposed as dubious last summer when thousands of Central American children walked freely across Mexico and into the United States.

Obama’s immigration record is problematic. Campaigning for the presidency, he promised to propose immigration reform legislation. Had he done so in 2009 or 2010 when Democrats controlled both congressional chambers, it is conceivable a bill might have passed.

But Obama did not put forward an immigration bill until his second term. By this time, Republicans controlled the House of Representatives and declined to act on a Senate-passed bill.

Before his epiphany last November, Obama had deported more than 4 million immigrants, in many cases breaking up families for minor offenses. Although the executive orders he announced are welcomed by Latinos, they are clouded by the legal battle over their constitutionality and lack of permanence: the orders will expire when Obama leaves office unless extended by his successor.

The plight of these immigrants poses a political danger for Republicans. The GOP took control of the Senate and expanded its House majority in 2014 by winning states and districts with relatively few Latino voters. It will be more difficult to win the presidency on an anti-illegal immigrant platform.

Latinos were a key element of the coalition that twice carried Obama to victory. Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee who had called upon illegal immigrants to “self-deport,” received only 27 percent of the Latino vote.

Political analyst Larry Sabato estimates the Republican presidential nominee in 2016 will need 40 percent of the Latino vote to win, about what President George W. Bush received when he was re-elected in 2004.

Another Bush — Jeb, a potential presidential candidate — knows from experience that treatment of immigrants is an issue loaded with pitfalls. In 2004, as governor of Florida, Bush proposed issuing driver’s licenses to unauthorized immigrants. Hostile Republican reaction killed the plan. Bush was left to lick his political wounds and warn that “the situation of illegal immigrants won’t go away.”

Twice in the past month the issue has flared along party lines in states likely to be battlegrounds in the 2016 presidential election.

In the Virginia Senate, the Democratic minority united to kill a bill that would have repealed a law allowing immigrants to obtain in-state tuition. The bill failed by a single vote because one Republican senator defected and another was absent.

In Colorado, where Republicans won state Senate control in 2014, a Senate budget committee blocked release of funds for an existing program that provides driver’s licenses to unauthorized immigrants. Such licenses are now being issued only in a southwest Denver office where appointments are booked for the rest of 2015.

These actions suggest that treatment of unauthorized immigrants will be a potent issue this year in the states, absent unexpected action on immigration reform in Washington. Republicans and Democrats don’t agree on much, but both sides could say with Jeb Bush that the issue isn’t going away.

Lou Cannon, a Summerland resident, is a longtime national political writer and acclaimed presidential biographer. His most recent book — co-authored with his son, Carl — is Reagan’s Disciple: George W. Bush’s Troubled Quest for a Presidential Legacy. Cannon also is an editorial adviser to State Net Capitol Journal, which published this column originally. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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