The California Influencer Series

Legal residents first. Don’t separate families. California leaders advise DC on immigration

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The California Influencers Series

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When Kim Yamasaki reads the news, she thinks of another wrenching chapter in the nation’s history, when Japanese-Americans were forced into relocation camps at the onset of World War II.

“My grandfather was sent to one of these camps as a young boy. … We cannot allow this kind of history to repeat itself,” said Yamasaki, now the Executive Director of the Center for Asians United for Self Empowerment (CAUSE) and one of The Sacramento Bee’s California Influencers. “We need to ensure that immigration policy is not made at the expense of an individual’s most fundamental human rights.”

Harmeet Dhillon came to the United States as a small child from the Punjab region of India. As a young lawyer, she represented members of the Sikh community in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“California needs to prioritize the rights and interests of its citizens and legal residents first,” said Dhillon, a senior Republican National Committee official and also a member of the Bee’s Influencer series. “The large influx of low-wage workers and residents encouraged to enter California illegally and reside here depresses wages, job opportunities, and quality of life for Californians.”

Yamasaki and Dhillon’s strong emotional investment in one of California and the country’s most contentious policy debates was reflected in the responses that the Bee’s readers offered through Your Voice, the online tool capturing suggestions for this election-year conversation. No other topic has prompted as many responses or as vehement reactions from both readers and Influencers.

“As a mother, I cannot fathom the hundreds, maybe thousands of infants and toddlers crying themselves to sleep at night,” said Renata Simril, President and CEO of the LA84 Foundation and a key figure in Los Angeles’ successful efforts to host the 2024 Olympics. “Protecting all kids and families, as well as protecting human rights, is fundamental to our morality.”

“These are not just California values, these are human values,” agreed Sacramento consultant David Townsend, founder of TCT Public Affairs. “We must stand up against the horrific separation of families at our border. We are better than this.”

Although some of the Influencers suggested state level policy measures such as workplace protections and access to health care and education, most recognized that the most pressing changes to immigration policy must be accomplished by federal rather than state government. They focused on issues such as border security, temporary worker programs, family reunification, and a path to legal status.

“California politicians can best serve their constituents by climbing down from their soap boxes and stop pretending that they can actually solve the immigration problem,” said Sal Russo, a longtime conservative strategist and Co-Founder of the Tea Party Express. “Their best course would be to lower their rhetoric from the wild extremism on both sides and restore a civil debate on a serious national problem that needs immediate addressing for economic, moral and social imperatives.”

Several argued that California’s unique experience with immigration policy provided an opportunity for state leaders to influence the national debate.

“It is clear that California officeholders at all levels should be leading voices in this sometimes alarming debate. That’s what leadership is,” said former U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer. “Our state ... the dynamic, diverse success story should be the immigration truth teller.”

Former Los Angeles Times editor Jim Newton, now a lecturer at UCLA, agreed.

“California should establish itself as a counterpoint to Washington — welcoming, inclusive and appreciative of immigrants, legal and illegal,” Newton said. “That means providing services regardless of immigration status and allowing immigrants to interact with law enforcement without fear of deportation.”

Other Influencers argued for a different approach, highlighting the ideological divide on the issue both in California and in Washington.

“For those of us who believe illegal immigration is a bad thing, and that we need to follow the rule of law, we think there needs to be a distinction drawn between legal immigration, which we embrace, and illegal immigration,” said Jon Fleischman, publisher of the influential conservative website FlashReport.

California Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Alan Zaremberg underscored the challenge of overcoming such philosophical differences.

“If our congressional delegation can’t get together and agree on a solution in a state where immigration reform is more consequential than anywhere else, how can we expect other states to agree?” he asked.

Mindy Romero, founder and director of USC’s California Civic Engagement Project (CCEP), offered a potential first step forward.

“Too many Californians still see immigrants as a threat to their personal values and the well-being of the state. Meanwhile, immigrants themselves continue to face distrust, discrimination and even hatred from some fellow Californians — sometimes even in self-proclaimed progressive communities,” Romero said. “We … still have a way to go in crafting the ideal immigration policy environment. But we can start by dealing honestly with our own internal conflicts, however difficult.”

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