Bucking Congress, California Legislature fortifies immigrant rights

Driver's license bill long sought

jwhite@sacbee.comSeptember 13, 2013 

Congress may be moving slowly on plans to rewrite the nation’s immigration policy, but California lawmakers weren’t waiting this year as they pushed a raft of legislation aimed at expanding rights for noncitizens of all sorts.

As the 2013 legislative session concluded Thursday, lawmakers put forward a series of bills to extend new privileges, some of which had been sought for years, to the state’s largest-in-the-nation population of undocumented immigrants.

Legislators sent Gov. Jerry Brown bills allowing undocumented immigrants to practice law, shielding them from being ensnared in federal immigration dragnets, and protecting them against labor retaliation and unscrupulous attorneys.

Two other measures would extend civic duties to legal noncitizens, allowing them to serve on juries and staff polling places.

Perhaps most significantly, the Legislature passed a bill permitting undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses, a cherished goal of immigrant-rights advocates that repeatedly foundered over the last decade but is now poised to become law. As the Assembly cast its final vote on the measure Thursday night, members of the California Latino Legislative Caucus stood clustered together on the Assembly floor, watching a long-deferred ambition materialize.

That moment reflected a shift, described by Republican political consultant Matt Rexroad, in which demographic changes – including a growing Latino population – have in turn reshaped the composition of the Legislature. But the success of immigrant advocates, Rexroad said, raises some increasingly pressing questions about the nature of citizenship.

“My question is, if not driver’s licenses, not juries, not in-state tuition – what is it that should be left for people who are citizens of this country?” Rexroad asked. “What should be reserved?”

The flurry of action offered a stark contrast with the state Legislature’s federal counterpart.

During Congress’ recent summer recess, immigration advocates dispatched allies to district offices across California in an effort to persuade Republican members of Congress to take up an immigration overhaul bill that passed the U.S. Senate but remains mired in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

In arguing for immigration-related measures during the final days of session, state lawmakers invoked their obligation to act despite a stalemate in Washington.

“In the absence of national immigration reform, it’s incumbent upon the biggest state in the union to lead the way,” said Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento. “And we did.”

In some cases, authors explicitly tied their bills to the federal effort. Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, carried a bill aimed at predatory or unqualified purveyors of immigration law services, noting that the passage of a federal immigration bill would generate huge demand for legal assistance. The bill plans for multiple outcomes: it would create a help hotline if immigration reform passes, but it also prevents providers from accepting payment in advance of the federal bill passing.

“Obviously, we’ve heard a lot of things on the floor and throughout today about the need to pass federal immigration reform, and that’s true,” Gonzalez said on the Assembly floor Thursday evening. “But it may not pass, and unfortunately there are people out there today accepting payment for people to get into a line that doesn’t exist.”

The push to bolster rights for California immigrants was not restricted to Democratic lawmakers. Republicans have become keenly aware of the demographic forces arrayed against them, particularly after a disastrous showing in the 2012 election, with many lawmakers this session making a conspicuous effort to bolster their immigration bona fides. On Thursday morning, 15 Republican legislators held a conference urging the House of Representatives to take up and pass the bogged-down immigration legislation.

That evening, the Assembly took up a bill enabling undocumented immigrants who have passed the State Bar exam to practice law in California. The bill responded directly to a California Supreme Court case brought by a man named Sergio Garcia, who was brought to the state illegally as a child and passed California’s notoriously difficult bar exam on his first attempt. Legislators sent Brown a bill clarifying the right of Garcia and others like him to work as attorneys, with only four recording “no” votes. Ten Republicans voted yes.

“Until we get the leadership of Congress for immigration reform, we are going to need to provide the leadership,” said Assemblyman Rocky Chavez, R-Oceanside.

Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez, D-Los Angeles, heralded evidence of a “much more rational discussion” around immigration. He noted that Assemblyman Donald Wagner, R-Irvine, voted for the bill after saying it did not conflict with federal law and urging his colleagues to aid “someone who is here by no fault of his own.”

“To have the vice-chair of the Judiciary Committee, a lawyer, a Republican – a conservative Republican from Orange County – get up and voice his support for that bill, if you look at the discussion he and I virtually said the same thing,” Pérez said.

That’s not to say the immigration measures enjoyed unanimous support. In explaining his opposition to the bill allowing undocumented immigrants to practice law, for instance, Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, R-Twin Peaks, praised Reyes’ tenacity and worthiness but warned that California was pre-empting the federal government and further muddling an already confusing body of immigration law.

“This speaks a lot more about the dysfunctional, broken, byzantine maze that our immigration process has become,” Donnelly said, adding that “changing the rules for being admitted to the bar to allow somebody whose status is in legal question, I think, would be a mistake.”

Several Republicans also rose in opposition to the driver’s license bill. But even that measure, one of the more contentious bills before the Legislature, garnered two Republican votes in the state Senate – including from Sen. Andy Vidak, R-Hanford, who recently won a highly contested election for an open seat in the Central Valley, a magnet for undocumented farm laborers.

“Not only is it the right thing to do,” said Sen. Anthony Cannella of Ceres, another Central Valley Republican, “but our economy will benefit.”

Of course, the Legislature cannot enact laws by itself. In past years, banner immigration bills that recurred in this year’s batch have met their demise on the governor’s desk. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed bills offering immigrants driver’s licenses; last year, Gov. Jerry Brown nixed a measure limiting the ability of federal immigration authorities to claim undocumented immigrants who have been arrested.

But that dynamic also appears different this year, said Joseph Villela, policy director for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. Brown has already suggested he would sign the driver’s license bill, and Villela pronounced himself “cautiously optimistic” about the governor’s position on the bill limiting federal immigration enforcement.

“We have been able to move a lot of those bills out of the Legislature in the past, or similar bills,” said Villela. “The big question was always the governor, and the fact the governor has signaled he will sign several of those bills means this will most likely be a big year for immigrant rights groups.”

This story was updated at 11:40 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 14, to replace an incorrect name with the correct name of Sergio Garcia.

Call Jeremy B. White, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5543.

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