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Lou Cannon: States Try to Fill Federal Vacuum on Immigration Reform

With immigration reform blocked by partisan gridlock and government shutdown in Washington, states led by California have stepped in to ease the plight of illegal immigrants.

“While Washington waffles on immigration, California’s forging ahead,” Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown said earlier this month as he signed legislation to increase civil, workplace and education protections for immigrants.

California is not alone. Only two years ago, states were poised to emulate strict laws in Alabama, Arizona and Georgia denying illegal immigrants a variety of privileges. Such laws are still on the books, but many states are now heading in the opposite direction. For example, 10 states and the District of Columbia allow illegal immigrants to obtain drivers’ licenses. Colorado, Minnesota and Oregon this year granted in-state college tuition to illegal immigrants, bringing to 15 the number of states that do so.

The sea change in the treatment of immigrants primarily reflects electoral politics. Republicans were stung by the overpowering backing that Latino and Asian voters gave President Barack Obama and other Democrats in the 2012 elections and concerned that the GOP could become a permanent minority unless it became more supportive of immigration reform. Democrats gleefully made the same point.

No one knows for sure how many illegal immigrants, called “undocumented” by their advocates, live or work in the United States. The Pew Research Center — which uses a complex and sophisticated formula that is widely accepted as the most accurate estimate — puts the current number at 11.7 million, nearly a million less than the 2007 peak but higher than a year ago. Immigration flow declined after 2007 because of increased security on the U.S-Mexican border and fewer U.S. job opportunities during the Great Recession. It may now be rising again, according to Pew, because of a surge of immigration from poverty-stricken Central American nations and an improved U.S. economy.

Roughly 60 percent of the illegal immigrants living in the United States are from Mexico. Many have relatives who were once illegal but are now U.S. citizens or legal residents. In part because of familial ties, a majority of Latinos favor immigration reform, preferably through federal law.

A comprehensive federal immigration reform bill seemed in sight over the summer when prominent Republicans led by Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida backed bipartisan legislation to ease the path to citizenship while enhancing border security. This bill cleared the Senate on June 27 by a 68-32 vote but has bogged down, like much else, in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

Meanwhile, states have been busy. According to a recent report from the National Conference of State Legislatures based on State Net data, legislatures in the first six months of 2013 enacted 146 laws and 231 resolutions on immigration, more than in the entire year of 2012. Not all of these laws made life easier for illegal immigrants. For instance, 10 states tightened employment rules in ways that could make it more difficult for such immigrants to find work. Georgia, at the other end of the spectrum from California in welcoming immigrants, now prevents people who are in the country illegally from obtaining public housing, driver's licenses, state grants and loans.

But many of the new laws are beneficial to immigrants, such as the measures allowing them to receive in-state college tuition. Seven states enacted measures making it easier for pregnant women and children of illegal immigrants to receive health care.

The resolutions, while not having the force of law, are instructive about Republican concerns about being perceived as anti-immigrant. Texas, where Republicans control the Legislature, passed 96 resolutions commending the contributions of immigrants or immigrant organizations. Many of the 231 resolutions approved in 30 other states, most also GOP-controlled, singled out immigrants for praise.

California, with a budget larger than all but six nations in the world, is in many ways a nation-state with its own set of priorities. From territorial days until late in the 20th century the Golden State often stigmatized nonwhite immigrants, starting with Mexicans who were a majority when California achieved statehood in 1850 and continuing with subsequent waves of Chinese, Japanese and Filipinos who were imported as agricultural or railroad workers. Politicians of all stripes claimed immigrants worked so cheaply that they reduced the wages of American workers.

While that accusation still pops up every now and again, the more persistent complaint about illegal immigrants is that they are a drain on public services. In 1994, this concern led to Proposition 187, a California ballot initiative aimed at denying health and education benefits to illegal immigrants. Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, running for re-election, endorsed the initiative in a TV commercial showing Mexicans streaming across the border as a voice-over fearfully intoned: “They keep coming.”

Prop. 187 was overwhelmingly approved by California voters although most of the measure was subsequently invalidated by the courts. Wilson was re-elected. Defending his support of Prop. 187, Wilson said that illegal immigrants did in fact keep coming to California and continued to do so until the Great Recession. According to the Pew Center estimates, California now has 3.5 million illegal immigrants, about 30 percent of the nation’s total.

But there has been a huge turnaround in attitudes in the Golden State, which has become a virtual sanctuary for illegal immigrants. It is a change reflective of demography. Latinos, 14 million strong, are 39 percent of California’s population, the same percentage as non-Hispanic whites. Many Latinos are too young to vote or uninterested in politics. Even so, Latinos constituted about 20 percent of the electorate in the 2012, and Latino turnout increases election by election. Sixty-three percent of Latinos are registered Democrats compared to only 17 percent Republican and 17 percent independent. The political preference of Latinos is a major reason Democrats command a super-majority in the Legislature and hold every statewide office.

Democrats expressed their appreciation to the Latino community in the 2013 legislative session by passing 11 bills that make life easier for immigrants. Brown signed all but one of them: a bill permitting illegals to serve on juries that he decided went a bridge too far. Major bills signed by Brown allow illegals to obtain drivers’ licenses, pay in-state tuition at state universities and colleges, and be licensed as lawyers. Other measures restrict the fees of those who help illegal immigrants gain legal status, make it a crime for employers to “induce fear” by threatening to report an employee’s immigration status, and pay overtime to illegals working more than nine hours a day.

One of the most significant — and controversial — new measures is the Trust Act, which protects undocumented immigrants who are detained by police from being routinely turned over to U.S. immigration authorities for deportation. They will be turned over under the new law only if accused of a violent felony or sex crime. The federal government is supposed to deport only illegal immigrants who have committed serious crimes, but last year California sent back 100,000 people, mostly to Mexico, many of whom were detained for minor offenses.

Last year, Brown vetoed a more expansive version of the Trust Act at law enforcement request. This time the law, which largely follows the existing practice of the Los Angeles Police Department, had backing from several law enforcement jurisdictions. Police object to the practice of routinely turning persons they detain to federal immigration authorities because they say this policy reduces public cooperation in communities with large numbers of immigrants.

Even so, the law is unpopular with many conservatives. Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, R-Twin Peaks, contended that the measure should be called the Anti-Trust Act because it erodes faith between local and federal law enforcement officials.

Overall, the mostly Republican opposition to the measures benefiting illegal immigrants has been respectful in contrast to the immigration-bashing once common in California. Assemblyman Rocky Chávez, R-Oceanside, says that the spate of measures approved by the Legislature could weaken the desire of illegal immigrants to become U.S. citizens.

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

State concessions to illegal immigrants in California and elsewhere have not eliminated the need for action by the federal government, which alone has the power to provide a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants living in the United States. Twenty-four states this year passed resolutions urging Congress to act on immigration reform. Businesses would like a standard national rule under the E-Verify system for determining if employees are legal residents. Growers, particularly in the West, want a guest-worker program that would give them a dependable labor supply at harvest time.

But with Congress in seemingly perpetual gridlock, many states believe they cannot afford to wait until the House gets its act together to do what they can on immigration reform. In Brown’s words, while Washington waffles, states are moving ahead.

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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