Monday, October 7, 2013

California Blazes the Trail for Future Immigrant Integration Laws

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

In 1994, the California voters by a 2-1 margin passed Proposition 187, an anti-immigrant measure that, among other things, it would have barred undocumented children from California public schools.  The misguided laws was later enjoined by a federal court as unconstitutional. Republican Governor Pete Wilson, now largely exiled from politics, won re-election on a wave of anti-immigrant support for Proposition 187.

In certain respects, California was ahead of the curve with Proposition 187 and its efforts to promote immigration enforcement.  In recent years, states like Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, South Carolina, and other states have passed immigration enforcement measures, all of which have been enjoined at least in part from going into effect, designed to ostracize undocumented immigrants and encourage “self-deportation.”

Things have changed in California, however. California has passed a series of laws designed to help integrate immigrants living in the state into society. In recent days, Governor Jerry Brown has signed into law bills that extend driver’s license eligibility to undocumented immigrantslimited state and local law enforcement agency assistance for minor criminal offenders with the federal Secure Communities program (the California TRUST Act), and passed legislation allowing undocumented immigrants to secure a license to practice lawDriver's licensee eligibility had been a major issue among the Latino community for years since the Legislature in the wake of Proposition 187's passage limited license eligibility; it took many years of political activism, and committed leadership, for the law to be changed.

What happened in California to explain the turnaround in immigration legislation? Latino voting power, that’s what. Proposition 187, along with tough 1996 congressional immigration reforms, helped to spur Latino political activism. Naturalization of Latinos increased. Latinos voted. Democrats took control of the Legislature. Today, there are a record number of Latinos in the California Legislature, including Assemblymember Luis Alejo (D-Watsonville), who championed the driver’s license bill.  The bottom line is that elections matter.

As Latinos increase as a portion of the population and voters, we can expect the future in other states to look much like California's. States should consider the political future in opting for laws that promote integration of immigrants, a legitimate state function, as opposed to ostracization and removal, a power in the hands of the federal government.


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