Politics & Government

Dan Walters: New California immigration laws could increase chaos

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

Let’s stipulate that the vast majority of California’s 3 million illegal immigrants are law-abiding, hard-working people who only want better lives for themselves.

Let’s agree that illegal immigrants play valuable roles in the state’s economy, often doing work – such as agricultural field labor – that legal residents shun.

Let’s recognize that the nation sorely needs to reform its immigration laws to provide a pathway for most illegal immigrants to become legal residents and/or citizens.

Finally, let’s assume that the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown, in enacting a series of measures to semi-legalize the status of those immigrants, acted from the most benevolent of motives.

All of those caveats notwithstanding, it is – or should be – somewhat troublesome that California is defying the federal government’s primacy on immigration policy.

“While Washington waffles on immigration, California’s forging ahead,” Brown said while signing one batch of immigration bills. “I’m not waiting.”

One might recall that when Arizona carved out an independent approach a few years ago, empowering local police, in effect, to enforce federal immigration laws, the state was widely criticized.

Immigration is a federal issue, it was said, and Arizona was wrong to substitute its enforcement judgment for that of federal officials.

Now California is doing the same thing in reverse, and may be creating untenable conflicts.

One bill, for instance, marks illegal immigrants’ new driving licenses differently from those issued to legal residents but bars discrimination against their holders. Advocates said licenses were needed because illegal immigrants must drive to their jobs, but employing them is itself a violation of federal law.

That federal law also appears to conflict, at least in spirit, with another new state law that employers can be fined or lose their business licenses for retaliating against an employee because of citizenship or immigration status.

The two laws may be creating a confusing, no-win situation in which employers would be fined by the feds for hiring an illegal immigrant, or by the state for discriminating against any illegal immigrants they may have hired.

Another new law prohibits a local law enforcement agency from detaining someone who is under a hold request by federal immigration officials unless that detainee is suspected or convicted of a major crime.

In effect, it declares California’s noncompliance with the feds’ “Secure Communities” program under which arrestees’ fingerprints are used to determine their status.

From a human-rights standpoint, all of these new laws may be justified. But while something needs to happen, adding more complexity and uncertainty to an already chaotic matrix of federal and state laws may be counterproductive.