Sacramento, Not Washington, Sets Pace for Immigration Reform

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Photo by Chanelle Ignant / New America Media
Video by Sean Shavers / New America Media

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SAN FRANCISCO – Local leaders of LGBT, women’s rights and immigrant rights groups are looking to Sacramento, not Washington, as the best hope for change.

With federal immigration reform stalled in the U.S. House of Representatives, activists here are turning their attention to a series of bills moving through the Democrat-controlled state legislature that could make California one of the most immigrant-friendly states in the nation -- nearly 20 years after Republican Gov. Pete Wilson pushed to deny health care and public education to undocumented immigrants.

“The [national] landscape has changed in the past two weeks,” since the developments in Syria, said Ben de Guzman of the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance in Washington, D.C. “We didn’t know what was going to happen on immigration reform; we have [even] less of a sense of what’s going to happen now.”

But one thing is clear: For many immigrant rights advocates, the greatest hope for reform may lie in Sacramento, not Washington.

Bay Area women leaders, undocumented immigrants, and LGBT activists – who have taken positions at the forefront of immigration reform protests – said at a recent strategy meeting that they were turning their attention to state and local bills to push for the rights of their communities. The meeting was co-sponsored by New America Media and 15 other organizations.

“The movement is not the people in D.C. behind closed doors making decisions – it’s us, it’s the sisters getting arrested,” said De Guzman, referring to more than 100 women who were arrested Thursday outside the House of Representatives to protest the House’s inaction on comprehensive immigration reform.

In July, Alex Aldana of the East Bay Immigrant Youth Coalition helped stage a sit-in by undocumented immigrants at Gov. Jerry Brown’s office to demand that he sign the TRUST Act, a bill that would limit who state and local authorities can hold for deportation at the request of immigration agents.

“Undocuqueer are putting their identity at risk to create social change,” explained Aldana, who came to the United States from Guadalajara, Mexico when he was 16 and identifies as both queer and undocumented.

Now immigrant rights advocates like Gabriela Villareal, policy manager of California Immigrant Policy Center, are lauding immigrant-related bills that have passed the state legislature and are heading to the governor’s desk.

Earlier this week, on Monday, Brown signed into law AB 1195 (Assemblymember Susan Eggman, D-Stockton), to ensure that immigrant victims of a crime can access their crime reports without fear of being denied due to their immigration status.

The law could have a real-life impact on immigrants like Lourdes Perez, who volunteers with Mujeres Unidas y Activas and is originally from Mexico.

“My son was beat up and was afraid of calling the police,” Perez explained in Spanish to a group of some 50 advocates on Thursday. “He said, ‘If I call them, are they going to deport me?’ I said, ‘Why does this have to happen simply because someone doesn’t have papers?’ That’s why we need immigration reform.”

A number of other immigrant-related bills are now awaiting the governor’s signature.

Brown said on Friday he would sign a bill authorizing undocumented immigrants to get driver's licenses, after Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville, accepted amendments that would make sure the licenses clearly indicated the driver was undocumented.

The driver’s license bill, AB 60, has been criticized by some immigrant rights advocates for requiring a special mark and notation to differentiate the licenses of undocumented immigrants – a move that has generated controversy in the past.

California's State Senate voted Wednesday to pass a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. If signed by Brown, California would become the third state after New York and Hawaii to ensure labor protections for domestic workers. The bill, AB 241, now heads to the governor's desk. Last September, Brown vetoed a previous version of the legislation by the same author, Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco).

On Tuesday, the California Assembly approved an amended version of the TRUST Act, also authored by Ammiano. The bill now heads to the governor, who has said he would sign the amended version of the bill after vetoing a previous version last year.

The TRUST Act, first introduced in 2011, was an attempt to address what Stacy Umezu, programs co-director of Community United Against Violence, called a “fatally flawed program misnamed Secure Communities.”

The program, Umezu says, was “capitalizing on racist and xenophobic fears as a result of the economic downturn in the U.S.”

Under Secure Communities, the fingerprints of all arrestees are sent to federal immigration authorities. The program, designed to go after criminals, has led to the deportations of hundreds of undocumented immigrants in the Bay Area, many of whom had no criminal record or had only been charged with minor offenses.

Secure Communities is still in effect, but a measure introduced by San Francisco Supervisor John Avalos would prohibit the holding of undocumented immigrants at the request of federal authorities who then pick them up for possible deportation. Umezu stressed the importance of passing the ordinance without amending it to limit due process guarantees.

“This is not just an immigration issue, this is not just a Latino issue. This is an issue that affects us all,” said Umezu. “As an LGBTQ community,” he said, “we know what it means to be criminalized.”

Other bills passed by the state legislature would protect consumers from immigration fraud, stop employers from retaliating against immigrant workers, and allow undocumented immigrants to get a license to practice law.

California isn’t the only state that is taking the lead in enacting its own immigration-related laws.

A new study released this week by the National Conference of State Legislatures’ Immigration Policy Project found that 43 states and the District of Columbia have enacted 146 laws and 231 resolutions related to undocumented and legal immigrants, migrants, and refugees during the first half of this year -- an 83 percent increase from the first half of 2012.

The state measures ranged from enforcement-oriented legislation in Republican-controlled legislatures in states like Indiana and Utah, to measures that extend benefits to undocumented immigrants in Democrat-controlled states like Colorado and Oregon.

For Amy Lin, a UCLA student who identifies as undocuqueer, the rights of immigrants, LGBT communities, and women are intrinsically connected.

Lin, who volunteers with the Asian undocumented student group ASPIRE, came to the United States from Taiwan when she was 12 years old. She came out to her mom when she was in high school.

“I told her, ‘I like girls, too. Is that OK?’ She looked at me and said, ‘It doesn’t matter. That’s what America’s for.’”

 

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