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Four immigration-related bills head to Brown's desk: Why now, and what next?

California Gov. Jerry Brown has indicated he'll support a bill to allow many unauthorized immigrants to obtain driver's licenses and he had direct input amending another bill that would limit deportation detentions. They're just two of four immigration-related bills awaiting his signature.
California Gov. Jerry Brown has indicated he'll support a bill to allow many unauthorized immigrants to obtain driver's licenses and he had direct input amending another bill that would limit deportation detentions. They're just two of four immigration-related bills awaiting his signature.
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What a difference a year makes.

At this time last year, Gov. Jerry Brown had two immigration bills on his desk: A previous version of the "Trust Act," a bill that aimed to limit deportations by placing restrictions on who state and local law enforcement officers could detain for immigration agents, and a narrow driver's license bill allowing licenses for young people who won temporary legal status under deferred action.

There was also a bill closely related to immigrants, a "bill of rights" for domestic workers seeking overtime pay, meal breaks and other protections for nannies, housekeepers and other domestic employees - jobs largely performed by immigrant women.

He vetoed two of the bills and signed only one, the license bill. Immigrant advocates derided the move as a token gesture, upset that Brown has passed on bigger proposals that had a greater impact on immigrant families in the state.

A year later, much has changed. Brown now has four bills relating to immigrants on his desk, including one that would allow many of the state's estimated 2.6 million unauthorized immigrants to obtain driver's licenses. A long string of similar bills proposed by ex-Assemblyman (and current City Councilman) Gil Cedillo of Los Angeles failed to make it. This time, Brown has indicated his support, suggesting he'll sign it.

Add to that a new Trust Act, slimmed down and clarified at the request of Brown, who had direct input to its retooling. The revised bill still limits who state and local authorities can detain for deportation, but defines the limits more clearly, sparing only non-offenders and people with low-level offenses from deportation holds. While Brown has been less explicit as to his support, his close involvement in reworking the bill he vetoed last year hints at a possible signature.

Also on Brown's desk: The latest version of the long-proposed domestic workers' "bill of rights," also pared down, but still requiring overtime pay for domestic workers like nannies and caregivers. Another last-minute measure would allow law school graduates who don't have legal immigration status in the U.S. to practice law.

The latter was quickly cobbled together last week after the California Supreme court weighed the case of Sergio Garcia, a law school graduate who hopes to obtain a license to practice law while he waits for his green card to be processed. 

There's no guarantee that Brown will sign all four bills. But just the fact that they made it to the governor's desk this year with substantial legislative support - and that he's likely to sign at least two of them - begs the question, "Why now?"

How far these bills have gotten reflects a political sea change that's taking place in California, said Mike Madrid, a principal with the political consulting firm Grassroots Lab and veteran GOP strategist.

"It's the culmination of a number of factors," Madrid said. "The first is obviously the rise of the  Latino electorate and the strength of the Latino Caucus, the main driver of that change. The second, and it's almost correlated, is the demise or waning influence of the Republican Caucus. Not just in numbers, but in the political sentiments of that caucus."

In their final Assembly votes before moving on to Brown's office, the driver's license bill passed 55-19; the Trust Act passed 48-22; the domestic worker bill passed 55-19; and the immigrant law practice bill passed  60-3. Among the "yes" votes were Republicans who would not have voted this way a few short years ago, Madrid said, but who are coming to terms with a changing electorate.

Then there's Gov. Brown. It's expected that he'll run for another term next year, his fourth counting the two terms he served in the 1970s and early 1980s.

Given the state's political climate and the lack, so far, of a viable opponent, political observers say Brown stands a good chance of winning reelection. So how much election strategy might factor into his decisions when he puts pen to paper?

"My reading of Governor Brown is that he keeps his political calculus separate from his electoral calculus," said UC Irvine political scientist Louis DeSipio. "He should be confident in his ability to win reelection such that he doesn't have to enter into a lot of political calculations in terms of which bills he signs and which he doesn't at this point." 

Still, it should be no surprise that Brown waited until this year to put time and support into bills like the Trust Act and the driver's license proposal, said Fernando Guerra, a political scientist who heads Loyola Marymount University's Center for the Study of Los Angeles.

A year ago, the 2012 election had not yet occurred, Republicans had still not suffered the defeat they did, and there was no immigration reform proposal in Congress. Now there is, and whether it passes or not, the measures in California are part of the national discussion.

"Jerry Brown is a brilliant tactician," Guerra said. "He learned from his very early years not to get way out in front, but to always be in front. Getting way out in front leads to labels like 'Governor Moonbeam.' But being just a little up in front leads to labels like progressive, in tune with the times, et cetera."

While he stands a good chance of winning reelection if he runs, choosing the right bills to support now will make him even tougher to beat, Guerra said.

"He is a total and complete political animal, so there is a lot of political calculus, otherwise why didn't he support some of these bills that were very similar a year ago?" Guerra said. "But I don't know that it is so much about his reelection but more about keeping him at the front of public policy, preparing for his legacy."

How he decides on the four immigration bills will play into that legacy. Which will Brown sign? It depends on whom you ask.

Madrid believes Brown could sign all four bills with little fear of significant political blowback. DeSipio sees him taking a more conservative approach, signing the Trust Act and the driver's license bill, but possibly stopping there. Guerra anticipates Brown signing these two bills, but wagers that the long-fought domestic worker bill could also get his approval.

"It may be difficult to implement, it may be difficult to regulate," Guerra said. "But symbolically, it puts it way out there that no other state and very few others have been able to do something like this. And that would be a legacy issue."

No word from Brown's office as to when he may take up any of the four bills. He has until Oct. 13 to sign or veto legislation.