How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Immigration issues to watch in 2014

Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

Immigration protesters take to the streets of Los Angeles for a May Day rally march, May 1, 2013, before the U.S. Senate passed its sweeping immigration reform bill in June. The measure stalled in the House. As 2014 begins, prospects for a broad immigration reform proposal are uncertain.

The top story on immigration in 2013 remains the top story as we head into the new year:  reform. But much else has happened in the last twelve months and several story lines are likely to play out in a big way in 2014.  Here are some of the key issues to watch:

1) Will immigration reform happen in 2014?

A year ago, advocates, politicos and pundits were speculating as to whether 2013 would be the year that the political winds finally favored a major immigration overhaul, the first since 1986.  Republicans were smarting from the losses they took in the November 2012 election, with Latino and Asian voters stepping up in record numbers to hand a re-election victory to President Obama.

But some veteran immigration watchers who had been down this path in 2006 and 2007 weren't so sure - and they were right. While the Senate passed a sweeping bill in June, which included a path to U.S. citizenship for unauthorized immigrants, House Republicans simply couldn't get behind it. Plans for a bipartisan House bill crumbled. The Senate plan stalled in the House and the rest is, well, recent political history.

Fast-forward to the end of the year: Republican House Speaker John Boehner has dropped hints that he'll push the House on immigration reform in 2014. But what the House votes on might look quite different from what Senate supporters of a comprehensive reform plan envisioned.

"We're likely to see bills that deal with specific components, like the Dream Act, high-skilled visas, and probably a bill that passes the House, or is at least proposed in the House, that would propose legalization for undocumented immigrants without a pathway to citizenship," said Karthick Ramakrishnan, a UC Riverside political scientist who studies immigration.

This could even make for strange bedfellows, political observers say, as advocates push for a halt to deportations and Republicans float legal status without a path to citizenship.

But compromises will most likely only go so far. President Obama and other immigration reform supporters have said they're willing to consider the piecemeal approach that House Republicans favor. But only if these piecemeal bills address key provisions of the Senate bill - and a path to U.S. citizenship is the key provision of the Senate bill. Without it, it's hard to count on much Senate support.

As for the political winds, if the timing wasn't right for a broader proposal to succeed in 2013, when might it be? The short answer: 2014. But it's an election year, so don't hold your breath. There will also be other high-priority distractions in the coming year, like a debt ceiling redux.

Where does this leave any kind of significant immigration legislation?

"There's a small possibility after the election, in the lame duck session," said Louis DeSipio, a political scientist and immigration expert at UC Irvine. "But I would only expect action if Republicans lose more than they did in 2012, and that does not seem to be a likely outcome."

On that note, the Republican Party has been making a concerted effort to reach to Latino voters in the wake of 2012. But the truth is that many House GOP members are secure in their districts without these voters, at least so far. Which means that it may take a little longer for a major immigration overhaul to go the distance.

2) Deportations: Will Obama take action?

Immigration officials announced recently that for the first time since President Obama took office, deportations actually decreased in 2013 - instead of hitting a record high as they have for years now. But it's little consolation to those who advocate on behalf of deportees and their families.

In recent months, as immigration reform efforts have stalled, immigrant advocates have been putting more pressure on the Obama administration to halt deportations. Their goal is to get the White House to take executive action and grant more unauthorized immigrants protection from deportation, as it did in 2012 to young immigrants under deferred action.

Right now, that program grants temporary legal status for two years and a work permit to young immigrants age 30 and under who arrived in the U.S. as minors under 16. Roughly half a million young people have been approved since it launched in August 2012.

Legal experts say it would be legally problematic for Obama to grant deferred action-style relief in sweeping fashion to a large number of immigrants. But if he chooses to, he could plausibly extend it to small, select groups of people. These could be, for example, immediate relatives of deferred action recipients, or their younger siblings, or immigrants who otherwise meet the criteria for deferred action but are too old to qualify. 

Not that Obama is interested - he's said so far that he isn't. But expect the pressure from advocates to mount so long as there's no legislative solution in sight.

In any case, the Obama administration will need to extend deferred action for another two years, and this could provide a window to make changes if any are to be made.

3) States do a 180: Goodbye SB 1070, hello driver's licenses and Trust Act

In 2010 and 2011, it was all about immigration enforcement in the states. Arizona passed its landmark SB 1070, which among other things empowered local cops to check for immigration status if there was "reasonable suspicion" to do so. Several other states soon followed suit. Among those that enacted SB 1070-style laws was Alabama, whose HB 56 went so far as to ask schools to check students' immigration status.

In the end, those states wound up spending money on legal defense. Arizona got to keep its so-called "papers, please" provision after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld this key portion of SB 1070, while striking down others. But Arizona did so with steep legal bills and businesses damaged by a long-running economic boycott of the state.

Enter then, the second generation of state immigration bills - the immigrant-friendly kind seen this year in California and elsewhere. 

In October, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed eight bills into law that either directly or indirectly affects immigrants, by and large in a positive way. One bill will allow unauthorized immigrants to apply for driver's licenses starting in January 2015, making California one of a growing list of states that allow immigrants without legal status to drive legally.

Brown also signed a bill known as the Trust Act, dubbed the "anti-Arizona" law by advocates, which will limit who state and local cops can hold for deportation at the request of federal immigration agents. Even before it was signed, it had spawned imitations. A version based on the California bill became law in Connecticut shortly before Brown put pen to paper, and similar measures are being proposed in in other states. And so far, unlike as with Arizona's SB 1070, the federal government hasn't sued.

Another precedent-setting California law signed this year: AB 1024, based on the case of law school graduate Sergio Garcia, which allows unauthorized immigrants who qualify to practice law. And around the country this year, more states began offering in-state tuition to college students who are in the U.S. illegally, something California already does.

All of this is a far cry from 1994, when California voters approved Proposition 187, which sought to bar unauthorized immigrants from public benefits. It was derailed in court, but it was emblematic of its era. Ultimately, it wound up helping shape the state's political landscape.

The shift toward more immigrant-friendly measures in the states seems to be spreading. Now that Arizona and the states that followed its lead after 2010 have had their own Prop 187 moment, it'll be interesting to see how far this trend goes.

There will be other stories to watch: For example, as the Pew Research Center hinted earlier this year - will illegal immigration make a comeback as the economy rebounds? As immigration activists embrace more aggressive protest tactics, what effect might it have on reform efforts? And if the California Supreme Court agrees to it, we could well see the first state-sanctioned attorney who is still waiting for his green card.

As always, there will be much to follow. Happy New Year.

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