Multi-American

How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

California's new immigration laws point to big changes in the political landscape

Impatient with the impasse in Washington, Gov. Brown has recently signed a number of immigration-related bills into law.
Impatient with the impasse in Washington, Gov. Brown has recently signed a number of immigration-related bills into law. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Some of the immigration-related bills that Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law during this past week would have been nearly unthinkable just a few short years ago. Just a few of the recent items making it through the legislature and past the governor's desk: A law limiting state and local law enforcement's level of cooperation with federal immigration agents, another allowing people in the U.S. illegally to apply for driver’s licenses, and even one allowing law school graduates without legal status to become licensed attorneys.

In just one day – last Saturday – Brown signed eight bills  that either directly or indirectly affect immigrants.
 
It's only been a decade since then-governor Gray Davis was recalled - and replaced by a Republican - on the heels of his signing a driver’s license bill very similar to the one Brown signed last week. Some thought the bill was political poison back then. What's different now?
 
“Mass," said Mike Madrid, a Republican political strategist in Sacramento. "In a single word, mass. The Latino electorate has exploded. We’re at a point now where the Latino Democratic caucus, the number of Latino legislators, is going to surpass the number of Republicans in the state legislature. And as a result, you are going to see these issues that we have struggled with, grappled with socially over the past two decades, really are not going to be at the center of our discussion any more.”
 
It's especially telling, he said, that in the case of the driver's license bill, some of the strongest opposition came from the left - with advocates worried that immigrants could be targeted if the special licenses for unauthorized immigrants looked too different from conventional state licenses.
 
California is at the center of a political and demographic convergence that’s put it ahead of the national debate over immigration, said Fernando Guerra, a political scientist at Loyola Marymount University.

The state’s role as a port of entry for unauthorized immigrants has shrunk, and this has eased public attitudes. Another factor cooling anti-immigrant sentiment is the improving economy. Also, while it's likely he'll run for another term, the governor doesn't appear to be angling for federal office, and watching over his shoulder accordingly.  With so much Latino and Democratic support, Guerra said, the governor doesn’t appear worried about a political backlash.
 
“I can tell you this, that if Gray Davis were in power today and did exactly the same thing he did back then, there is no way the recall would work today," Guerra said. "There are just too many Democrats in a very different way that would not have allowed that to happen.”

The legacy of California's past political battles over illegal immigration has also played a part in shaping the state's electorate, says Betty Hung, policy director for the Los Angeles office of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, an advocacy group. In 1994, California voters approved Proposition 187, a ballot initiative intended to cut off unauthorized immigrants from public benefits. The measure was hung up in the courts and never became law, but it did set off a reaction in immigrant communities.

"Immigrants realized than that we needed to build infrastructure in our state," Hung said. "And that has really been grounded in community organizing and voter registration, and in building the power of the immigrant community. It's also about the demographic realities of California, and how California is the most immigrant state... and that, again, is what's to come across the country. What we see in California today is what the rest of the country can expect."

But not so fast, said Tim Donnelly, a conservative Assembly member from San Bernardino County who plans to run for governor next year. Donnelly has opposed several of the bills signed by Brown, in particular one known  as the Trust Act,  limiting the cooperation of state and local law enforcement with federal immigration officials, as well as the new law allowing unauthorized immigrants to apply for California driver's licenses.  Donnelly said his constituents are angry.
 
“Oh there’s going to be huge backlash," Donnelly said. "I’m hearing all the time about the driver’s license bill he signed. In the history of California we have unseated governors on three issues: Taxes, driver’s licenses for illegals as well as benefits for illegals with Prop 187, and guns. Everyone of those is in major play this year.”
 
For the record, Gov. Brown hasn’t signed every immigrant-friendly bill that’s landed on his desk. On Monday, he vetoed a bill that would have let non-citizens who are legal permanent residents serve on juries.

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