They're Not In the Shadows Anymore

Published on June 11th, 2015

Roxana Kopetman and David Olson
June 11, 2015
Orange County Register

Undocumented immigrants flex growing political clout in California.

They live in the country illegally. They pepper their rallies with the chant "undocumented and unafraid." And they cannot vote.

Still, some politicians have heard their voices.

In California, undocumented immigrants have political clout.

"Today, we remind the rest of the nation that California is different," said state Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, in an April news conference to promote 10 bills he and others believe will help people in the country illegally.
The proposals ranged from a $1 billion plan to extend state-subsidized health care to the undocumented, to the establishment of a state office that would make it easier for some immigrant crime victims to avoid deportation.

Perhaps tellingly, the lawmakers discussed their proposals in a mixture of Spanish and English, with some statements presented only in Spanish, without translation.
"This package unequivocally states California's commitment to immigrants," said de León, D-Los Angeles.

The proposals come on the heels of several legislative victories for the undocumented in California. Among the most prominent are driver's licenses for all, limits on state cooperation with federal immigration authorities, and the right to become an attorney in California, regardless of one's immigration status.

Next year, people living here illegally will be able to apply for 40 other professional or vocational licenses, including doctors, nurses, pharmacists and real estate agents.
De León skirted a question on whether undocumented immigrants now have political power in California.

"You have a sizable number of legislators that are keenly aware that for the continued economic growth of California, we need to normalize the legal status of this population," he said.
Italia Garcia, 24, of Riverside said that even though she and other undocumented immigrants can't vote, many of their friends and family members can, and that translates into political power.

Garcia attributes the increasing number of bills to assist undocumented immigrants to immigrants such as herself who are telling their stories and personalizing the issue.

"We can educate people who aren't familiar with the problems we go through every day," she said. "We live through them."

That not only makes the general public more understanding of issues that undocumented immigrants face, she said. It also spurs some legal residents – who can't vote – to become citizens, and prods people who already are citizens to turn out at the polls, she said.

Anti-illegal-immigration activists decry the growing number of bills that assist people in the country illegally. They say the benefits offered to the undocumented are an economic albatross for California, serving as magnets to draw people across the border illegally and eat up taxes paid by legal residents.

"What this has done is embolden the Latino caucus to go for more. Why not?" said Joe Guzzardi, spokesman for Californians for Population Stabilization.

Karthick Ramakrishnan, a professor of political science and public policy at UC Riverside and an expert on immigration, said the increasing number of state bills benefiting people in the country illegally reflect the lack of action on immigration reform in Congress.

"Immigrant-rights groups and legislators in general have calculated that federal legislation won't happen anytime soon," he said. "So they might as well pass legislation in California that will ease the burden for undocumented immigrants. … They've created a de facto state citizenship that acts in parallel to federal citizenship."

Some of the legislation, such as the driver's license bill, received a number of Republican votes. Ramakrishnan said that's in part because agricultural and other business interests with ties to the GOP backed the driver's license bill. The licenses make it easier for undocumented immigrants to get to their jobs in the fields and elsewhere.

"In a way, you could see the laws being passed as pragmatic," Ramakrishnan said.

But for some legislators, the bills resonate personally, he said. A number of legislators are the children of immigrants, and the parents of one of the leading advocates for immigrant rights, Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, were at one time undocumented. Lara has in the past talked of how he thinks of his parents' struggles as he advocates for the rights of undocumented immigrants.

California now is recognized by pro-immigrant forces as a national leader in the immigration debate. Last year, the state passed the most immigration-related laws in the nation: 26, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

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