Opinion Columns & Blogs

Viewpoints: California, unlike the federal government, leads on immigration reform

A sea change is underway for the future of immigrants and their children in California. While comprehensive immigration reform – like so much else – is stalled in Washington, fall in the Golden State has brought a bundle of diverse and forward-looking policies to promote immigrant integration.

Earlier this month, Gov. Jerry Brown signed the Trust Act, a measure that will limit the ability of local law enforcement to transfer to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) those undocumented Californians who are arrested for minor offenses – and so curtail unfair deportations and family separations. Likewise, the governor signed a driver’s license bill that will once again permit all California residents who can pass the driver’s test access to legally drive – and allow parents to safely transport their kids to school and themselves to work.

California has also sought to improve the economic conditions of our immigrant population. In the same wave of signings, the governor agreed to two measures that will prevent retaliation against immigrants exercising basic rights on the job. This comes on top of his support in September for the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, which will ensure domestic workers (the majority of whom are immigrant women) the right to overtime pay when they work longer than nine hours a shift. And just as important, the Legislature passed and the governor approved a two-step increase in the minimum wage (Assembly Bill 10), something that will improve the livelihood of our lowest-paid workers.

In our own hometown of Los Angeles, new Mayor Eric Garcetti has appointed a chief of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, demonstrating a strengthened municipal commitment to connecting immigrants with city services and civic engagement. And the L.A. County Board of Supervisors just honored the Council for Immigrant Integration, a multi-sector effort sponsored by the California Community Foundation that brings together business, labor, law enforcement and others to support policies and practices of immigrant integration.

None of these decisions fell from the sky. Organizers, legal advocates, and allies in unions, faith-based organizations, civil rights groups, and, yes, the business community have been diligently working on these issues for years. Meanwhile, at the national level, undocumented youths who were told they don’t belong and have no right to be here dared to dream another scenario – and last year, President Barack Obama signed DACA, or the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, authorizing the right to work and deferring deportation for some immigrant youths.

We’re now reaping a fall harvest of immigrant integration policies – and California, a state in which nearly half of our children have at least one immigrant parent, is sure to benefit from the improving conditions and political tone.

But along with the good have stuck the bad and the ugly, most of it coming from Washington. This includes a massive deportation and detention system that has become a federal money pit. In fiscal year 2012, the United States spent $18 billion on immigrant enforcement – that is more than the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, Secret Service and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives combined. Since the 1990s, there have been more than 4 million deportations. The Obama administration deported 400,000 immigrants last year, causing devastating social impacts, ripping families apart and prompting indefinite separations that affects hundreds of thousands of people, including U.S.-citizen children and spouses.

Adding potential fuel to this fire is the comprehensive immigration reform bill passed by the U.S. Senate in June. While there is much to celebrate in that legislation, including an explicit commitment to provide a path to legalization and citizenship for the undocumented, the cost of passage was a commitment to spend $46 billion on additional border security as well as increased internal checks on immigrants. That stands in sharp contrast to the roughly $150 million set aside for institutions promoting immigrant integration. And even with that stark imbalance – more than 300 times the spending on enforcement as compared to integration – an increasingly dysfunctional House cannot seem to find its way to considering the bill.

We probably should be pessimistic – but we’re not. We recall the cacophony of California politics during the time of Proposition 187, legislation intended to prohibit the access of undocumented residents to state services (including schools), which passed with a strong majority. It’s a sharp contrast with the current calm, reflecting a quiet statewide recognition that it is better that everyone driving has a license, that the rights of employees be protected at work, and that families that may be divided by legal status can still stay united in one home.

With time, the rest of America will agree that our federal immigration policies are rusty relics from the last major reworking of the immigration regime in 1965. Opinion polls suggest that most Americans are indeed ready for reform – and it is Congress that is not even leading from behind. Meanwhile, California, once wracked by divisive struggles over immigration, is now marked by consensus about the steps ahead. The growing pains that helped Californians understand immigrant contributions to our economy and society may have been painful but our current future-facing policies now provide an example for the rest of the nation.