Democrats push to extend health, legal rights to immigrants

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Responding to federal inaction over immigration reform, California Democrats on Tuesday announced a package of 10 bills that would extend health care, legal rights and business protection to immigrants who are illegally living in the state.

Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, and Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles, led the majority party's push to expand health coverage to all Californians, regardless of their immigration status, although they are not proposing any funding to pay for the extensions.

"Today we remind the rest of the nation that California is different," de Leon said at a news conference in Sacramento attended by immigrant-rights advocates and families with members in the country illegally.

The package includes help for California's estimated 2.5 million immigrants in the country illegally to apply for legal status if they have been a victim of a crime and assistance for the recent surge of immigrant children crossing the border to stay in the country.

Another bill bans businesses from discriminating against people on the basis of their immigration status, citizenship or language. Other bills seek to establish a state agency to help newly arrived immigrants, protect immigrants from unscrupulous employers and extend legal protections to avoid detention and deportation, according to a written summary of the legislation.

Democrats who control the governor's office and both chambers of the Legislature have said they want to find ways for immigrants to come out of the state's economic shadows. The 10 bills were previously introduced, but they were touted Tuesday by supporters for advancing immigrants' rights.

Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar, questioned the costs.

"We understand the burdens facing immigrants who want to go to work and raise their families in safe neighborhoods, and the rationale behind these bills is admirable," Huff said. "But without money from Congress and President Obama, it will be very difficult and costly for California taxpayers to fund all of these bill proposals."

California this year began issuing driver's licenses to immigrants who are in the country illegally, and the Department of Motor Vehicles has already received a half-million applications. California is also one of several states to adopt the Dream Act, which permits college financial aid for top students seeking citizenship.

Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, is reintroducing SB4, a proposal to open California's Medicaid program to immigrants, as well as extending subsidized health benefits in a new insurance marketplace for those without legal status.

The proposal, which previously carried a cost as high as $1.3 billion a year, stalled in a legislative committee last cycle without any way to pay for it. Republicans had also criticized the cost of the expansion.

Lara said he is trying to reduce costs by seeking a federal waiver so immigrants can purchase private health insurance through the state-run exchange known as Covered California. Under the Affordable Care Act, immigrants in the country illegally are not eligible for assistance.

Under SB674 by de Leon and Atkins, immigrant victims of crime will have the opportunity to apply for the federal Victim of Crime Visa, known as a U-Visa. De Leon said the bill mandates local law enforcement to certify immigrants who are victims of human trafficking, rape and sexual assault rather than "subjectively start making immigration policy themselves."

AB900 by Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, seeks to align state law with federal immigration rules to maximize the number of immigrant children seeking legal status in response to an unprecedented surge at the border.

Just as gay-rights advocates recently won legislative victories in Indiana and Arkansas to expand legal protections for gays and lesbians, Sacramento Sen. Richard Pan's SB600 would expand civil rights protections to California immigrants.

Gov. Jerry Brown last month defended President Barack Obama's executive actions on immigration. The Obama administration is trying to spare from deportation millions of people who are in the U.S. illegally. California is one of 14 states plus the District of Columbia that has filed a brief in support of lifting an injunction intended to stall Obama's actions.

If the injunction is lifted, Obama's executive order will enable hundreds of thousands of low-income immigrants in California to apply for Medi-Cal.

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