Democrats offer bold immigration plan, but at what cost

Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, center, discusses a pair of proposed measures to protect immigrants in California, during a news conference Monday.
Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, center, discusses a pair of proposed measures to protect immigrants in California, during a news conference Monday. The Associated Press

Democratic leaders opened the 2017 legislative session with a blast across President-elect Donald Trump’s bow, understandably so.

They warned Trump not to mess with Californians by rushing to deport undocumented immigrants who are otherwise law-abiding people who work as nannies, house cleaners, and in many other low-wage, manual jobs.

Our state’s economy depends on them, and they pay plenty in taxes. Indeed, they pay more, said Speaker Anthony Rendon and Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, than at least one billionaire with whom we’ve all become acquainted.

The legislators have a “moral responsibility and political responsibility” to defend these California residents, de León said at a Monday news conference attended by several Democratic lawmakers. And in this state of immigrants, the reasons are clear why politicians are compelled to take a stand.

They convened the event to announce the introduction of two bills: one by Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Alameda, to pay for training for county public defenders in immigration law, and another by Sen. Ben Hueso, D-San Diego, to fund immigration lawyers who would represent illegal immigrants facing deportation before immigration courts.

Certainly, public defenders should be grounded in immigration law so they can fully represent clients who would face deportation if they are convicted. And undocumented immigrants facing deportation should have representation. But legislators and Gov. Jerry Brown need a clear view of the cost, and a full understanding of what other services the state might have to forgo in order to provide them with counsel.

Hueso said the price tag for both bills might be $10 million to $80 million. Either number is relatively small in a $172 billion budget. But the size of the spread suggests the ideas need plenty of work before they become law.

Hueso said the lawyers who counsel people in immigration court would not be government employees, but rather private attorneys. But just as the cost of such a program is not clear, there are questions about whether there are enough lawyers with proper training to represent the thousands of people who face deportation annually.

Trump raised the issue with his inflammatory rhetoric during the campaign. In a post-election “60 Minutes” interview, Trump said he envisioned deporting as many as 3 million undocumented immigrants he described as criminals.

But he hasn’t made clear how he defines who is a criminal who should be deported. Is he talking about infractions, misdemeanors or felonies? De León agrees undocumented immigrants who commit felonies ought to be sent back to their home countries.

Democratic legislators did not go looking for this fight. Clearly, they have good moral and political reasons for taking the stand they outlined Monday. But this state has many priorities. Before California embarks on a bold new spending program, lawmakers must fully understand its implications. And they shouldn’t promise more than they can afford.