Immigration bills benefited from a more engaged Gov. Brown

SACRAMENTO — Tom Ammiano was frustrated.

Gov. Jerry Brown had refused to meet with him, said the Democratic assemblyman from San Francisco, to talk about the Trust Act. Ammiano had proposed it to prevent immigrants in the U.S. illegally from being turned over to federal officials for possible deportation when arrested by local authorities.

Eventually, Brown skewered the measure with his veto pen, saying the bill was “fatally flawed” because it might have let some serious criminals escape deportation.

That was last year. This year, things were different. Ammiano said the two had multiple meetings in Brown’s office, where they discussed its threadbare carpet, their shared Roman Catholicism — and the Trust Act.

“He said, ‘I have some tweaks,’” Ammiano recalled. “Then we talked turkey and … came up with what everybody could live with.”

Brown signed the measure into law about a week ago, one of 11 immigrant-related bills he accepted this year. He also significantly expanded driver’s licenses for immigrants without documents. He rejected a measure to allow noncitizens to serve on juries, but gave those in the U.S. illegally permission to be lawyers and signed a bill protecting them from employers who threaten to report their status.


Brown’s embrace of new immigrant rights is a shift from three years ago, when he openly opposed the driver’s license idea while running for governor. He signed a small handful of immigrant-rights bills last year, permitting driver’s licenses for those eligible for temporary federal work permits and giving undocumented college students access to public financial aid. But mostly, he stayed focused on the state’s budget morass.

Now, with the fiscal crisis behind him, legislators describe the governor as more approachable and engaged. Instead of being handed off to his staffers, they hashed out differences with him face to face.

It helped that the Legislature’s 25-member Latino caucus, which led the charge on many immigrant bills, is mostly Democratic and that the party won supermajorities in both houses last November. This year’s efforts also coincided with a new recognition of California’s changing demographics: Even the Republican Party that once rallied voters against illegal immigrants has launched a Latino outreach effort.

“There is a change,” said Brown, who is expected to run for reelection next year in a state where 20% of voters are Latino and 10% are of Asian descent. “It’s in part the sheer numbers and participation by immigrants in the life of our communities. It’s also the advocacy and impressive work of immigrant groups and their supporters.”

The driver’s license law was long in the making.

Los Angeles City Councilman Gil Cedillo began working on the issue in 1997, when he was first elected to the Legislature. He eventually persuaded lawmakers to pass a bill that Gov. Gray Davis signed in 2003.

Arnold Schwarzenegger canceled the measure later that year, after replacing Davis in the recall election.

Ten years on, “what [has] changed was the political leadership and … the political climate,” Cedillo said in an interview last week.

Even so, the license expansion would have foundered this year but for one lawmaker’s chance remark to Brown.

The bill’s author, Assemblyman Luis Alejo (D-Watsonville), planned to table it amid a fight over a distinguishing mark on the licenses — something Brown said federal law required.

With only one more day to go in the legislative session, Sen. Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles) mentioned the stalled bill to the governor in a Capitol hallway. The senator said Brown, surprised, told him: “Send me the bill. I’ll sign it.”

Seizing the moment, DeLeon and a few colleagues revived the bill in the Senate, which passed it just hours before the Legislature adjourned. The Assembly quickly followed suit.

A couple of weeks later, more than 40 domestic workers — many of them Latino immigrants — were ushered into the governor’s inner office, where they tearfully watched him sign another long-sought bill. It requires overtime pay for nannies, healthcare aides and other personal attendants, a goal of community activists since 2006.

The group pressed in around Brown for a photo with him and Ammiano, the bill’s author. Many of those present had marched at the Capitol for years to make their case for equal employment rights, carrying babies or pushing in wheelchairs the disabled people they care for.

Lawmakers passed a bill last year that would have required rest and meal periods as well as overtime wages. But Brown rejected it, expressing concern in a long veto message about the “economic and human impact on the disabled or elderly person.”

Ammiano and Brown talked about the bill this year, providing the assemblyman with a road map for what the governor would support. Ammiano’s labor expert held meetings and conference calls with Brown’s aides to answer questions: How many workers were involved? How would work hours be counted? How would that affect the people being cared for?

In the end, only the overtime provision survived. But it was the one the workers most wanted.

In March of this year, a USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll found that only 19% of Californians opposed a path to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally. Among those with changing views are Republicans, who have a historically small minority in the Legislature and hold no statewide offices.

Two decades ago, the GOP was the main force behind Proposition 187, the effort to block public services for the undocumented, which drove up Democratic voter registration among Latinos. This year, the driver’s license bill received some GOP votes, and 16 Republican lawmakers signed a letter urging congressional leaders to change the nation’s immigration laws.

“Republicans chose the wedge of … Proposition 187, and we are paying the price for that decades later,” said Sen. Bill Emmerson (R-Hemet), who signed the letter, although he abstained from voting on the driver’s licenses bill. “It’s time for us to turn the page.”

Not all Republicans cede the issue. Assemblyman Tim Donnelly (R-Twin Peaks), a former Minuteman leader who may run against Brown next year, said the governor is “rolling the dice” with his flurry of immigrant-bill signings.

“We’ve created a precedent and an incentive for more people to come here illegally,” he said. “That’s a demerit for Gov. Jerry Brown.”

But Brown, immersed in California politics for the last four decades, has repeatedly proved his political instincts, noted Peter Dreier, a professor of politics at Occidental College.

The governor’s bill actions are “no accident,” Dreier said. Latinos’ increasingly powerful voice has “made them impossible to ignore.”

Times staff writer Melanie Mason contributed to this report.