California lawmakers continued the state’s expansion of rights and protections this year for immigrants who enter the country illegally, with laws signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom allowing them to serve on government boards and commissions and banning arrests for immigration violations in courthouses across the state.
The efforts by Newsom and Democrats in the California Legislature to provide refuge to immigrants stand in sharp contrast to the policies of President Trump, who continues to push for a new wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and also crack down on asylum seekers.
“Our state doesn’t succeed in spite of our diversity — our state succeeds because of it,” Newsom said in a written statement on Saturday after signing some of the bills into law. “While Trump attacks and disparages immigrants, California is working to ensure that every resident — regardless of immigration status — is given respect and the opportunity to contribute.”
The legislation signed by Newsom also expands California’s college student loan program for so-called Dreamers, young immigrants brought to the country illegally as children, to include students seeking graduate degrees at the University of California and California State University schools. Undergraduate Dreamers already are eligible for those loans and in-state tuition. The new laws take effect Jan. 1.
But the governor didn’t embrace every immigration proposal that landed on his desk. He vetoed a bill that would have given the state attorney general the authority to investigate any death at civil immigration detention centers. A report by the American Civil Liberties Union documented 13 deaths at California immigration detention centers since 2010.
In a veto statement, Newsom said a policy to end the use of private, for-profit detention facilities in the state, including those used to house immigrants, makes that proposed law unnecessary.
“I believe that closing these facilities needs to be our focus as it is the best way to address these injustices,” Newsom said.
In February, state Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra released findings from the first state inspection of California’s immigrant detention centers and found that almost all facilities detained people in cells for long periods of time — sometimes up to 22 hours a day — without any breaks. Immigrants faced significant language barriers and challenges in accessing medical and mental healthcare and legal counsel, state investigators found. Detainees were allowed only minimal contact with friends and family.
“Here you have immigrants dying in the custody in these civil detention centers and yet we don’t have any authority to do an investigation,” state Sen. Maria Elena Durazo (D-Los Angeles), author of the bill vetoed by Newsom. “This is getting worse and worse by the day as far as immigrants in the hands of ICE officials.”
Amid an escalating feud with the Trump administration and its aggressive plans to deport immigrants, California also adopted a new law forbidding immigration agents from making civil arrests inside state courthouses.
California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye last year said the arrests were “disruptive, shortsighted, and counterproductive ... It is damaging to community safety and disrespects the state court system.”
“The governor came into office understanding that close to 50% of the population in California is either an immigrant or a child of an immigrant,” said Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights. “Pro-immigrant policies are pro-California policies. If immigrants thrive, we all thrive.”
One of Durazo’s most ambitious pieces of legislation in 2019 would have provided Medi-Cal healthcare coverage to all eligible immigrants, even if they entered the country illegally. California already provides government-subsidized health services to immigrant children and youth from low-income families.
The proposal failed to advance in large part because of the cost: $2.3 billion in state and federal funding, according to one legislative estimate. But in his budget passed by state lawmakers in June, Newsom extended Medi-Cal coverage to adults in the U.S. illegally through the age of 25.
Durazo said the governor promised to consider extending Medi-Cal benefits for immigrants ages 65 and above next year. She said those immigrants should be entitled to state healthcare coverage and other government benefits because they pay state and federal taxes.
“If they’re here, they’re working, they’re participating and they’re contributing, I think they have the right to get their end of the deal. Why would we treat them differently? … It’s not smart for California,” Durazo said.
Legislative Republicans largely opposed the immigration agenda of Democrats. But there was bipartisan consensus on one bill that at least indirectly involves immigrants, regardless of their legal status. The legislation requires public schools to provide 2020 U.S. Census materials to students and parents that encourage them to take part in the decennial nationwide population count. The bill passed unanimously in both the Assembly and Senate and was signed by Newsom earlier this month.
Census data are used to distribute nearly $900 billion in annual federal funding, supporting schools, healthcare, food stamps, foster care and special education. Census results also determine the number of representatives in Congress granted to each state.
The Trump administration attempted to add a citizenship question to next year’s census, which Democrats alleged was a ploy to discourage immigrants from participating over fears of potential deportation or other government action. The administration later abandoned the effort, which was challenged in the courts.
“Even though the courts, in the end, took out the citizenship question, there was lots of damage that was already done in our communities,” said Assemblywoman Eloise Reyes (D-Grand Terrace), author of the bill. “We have to be able to tell them in a way that they can trust, tell them that they needed to be counted.”