This year’s legislative battle over immigration seemed to come to a draw when Gov. Jerry Brown signed one key bill but vetoed another.
Immigration rights advocates, however, said Monday that the political give-and-take was largely an illusion. They lost.
The bill that Brown signed, which lets some young immigrants have driver’s licenses, allows nothing beyond what is permitted under a new federal program granting a two-year reprieve from deportation.
But the bill that Brown vetoed — the Trust Act — was among the most closely watched pieces of immigration legislation in the country. It would have barred local law enforcement officials from cooperating with federal authorities in detaining suspected illegal immigrants, except in the cases of serious or violent crime.
Brown said he was open to working on the legislation further to fix its faults. But immigrant rights groups remained suspicious about his intentions, questioning why he had not raised concerns sooner.
“Gov. Brown waited until the eleventh hour to veto the most … impactful bill that would bring tremendous relief for the immigrant community,” said Carlos Amador of Dream Team Los Angeles. “But he decided to sign a symbolic and hollow bill that doesn’t bring anything more than what we already had … to apply for a driver’s license.”
Brown’s actions amounted to a setback for illegal immigrants, said Yale law professor Michael Wishnie.
“I’m signing this bill that’s unnecessary ... and that somehow balances out” the Trust Act? “It doesn’t add up,” Wishnie said.
As Sunday’s deadline approached, much attention was focused on the Trust Act.
Immigrant rights advocates had staged rallies. Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca had vowed to defy the law if Brown signed it. Four young immigrants risked deportation by getting themselves arrested in front of a downtown Los Angeles jail.
The governor’s office was deluged with mail and phone calls advocating on both sides of the issue.
Under the federal Secure Communities program, everyone arrested in California on criminal charges is evaluated for immigration status. At the request of federal authorities, sheriff’s deputies can detain suspects for 48 hours before handing them over to federal custody.
In his veto message, the governor said the bill was “fatally flawed” because some crimes, such as child abuse, drug trafficking and selling of weapons, would not trigger the deportation process.
“I believe it’s unwise to interfere with a sheriff’s discretion to comply with a detainer issued for people with these kinds of troubling criminal records,” Brown wrote. “The significant flaws in this bill can be fixed, and I will work with the Legislature to see that the bill is corrected forthwith.”
By expressing a desire to revamp the measure, Brown was able to avoid a confrontation with law enforcement while keeping immigrant rights advocates at the negotiating table.
The California State Sheriffs’ Assn. also was open to discussing a modified version of the Trust Act, said Marin County Sheriff Bob Doyle. Many sheriffs, including Baca, objected to the Trust Act because they said it would have forced them to choose between state and federal law.
“Our interests are always in public safety. I don’t think states should be getting in the immigration business. I think that’s the federal government’s responsibility,” Doyle said. “I personally believe that if someone’s here illegally, they should be returned to their country of origin.”
Despite Brown’s veto, California remains one of the nation’s most immigrant-friendly states, allowing undocumented college students to pay in-state tuition and, soon, to receive state financial aid.
“It’s arguably the most welcoming environment for illegal immigrants,” said Bob Dane, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an anti-illegal-immigration group. “It’s hard to imagine any rational reason for expanding the welcome wagon. Once again, illegal aliens are in the driver’s seat in California.”
Some see the new driver’s license law as one example.
It applies to immigrants age 30 and younger who would be in the country legally after qualifying for the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Under the Obama administration plan launched in August, an estimated 350,000 people in California could be eligible to receive work permits and driver’s licenses.
States, however, can specifically deny driver’s licenses. Arizona and Nebraska have done so.
Baca saw value, however, in the driver’s license provision. Immigrants with work permits should be able to get driver’s licenses, he said through a spokesman.
“That’s exactly what happened here,” Steve Whitmore said. “It’s another good step in the right direction.”