While the federal government stalls on immigration reform, some states have begun acting on their own. Much attention in the last decade has focused on Republican-dominated areas that have tightened enforcement. Meanwhile, more quietly, California moved in the opposite direction, encouraging integration rather than deportation.
California has passed more than a dozen laws on immigrant integration between 2001 and the present. In mid-June, the state expanded healthcare access to all undocumented children and boosted spending for naturalization assistance. These various laws collectively produce a kind of state-level citizenship — call it “the California Package.”
The California Package is innovative in several respects. Not only does it grant rights to immigrants that are restricted at the federal level, but it also tends to blur the distinction between citizens, authorized, and unauthorized immigrants — valuing everyone who lives in the state and contributes to society.
Thus, for example, qualification for in-state tuition is not based on immigrant status but rather on the number of years any person has spent in the K-12 system in California. Similarly, the state passed a law in 2014 that requires all professional licensing boards to consider applicants regardless of their immigration status. And all residents can obtain a driver’s license.
This creation of a de facto system of state citizenship may seem radical, especially after a century or more of thinking about immigration law as falling squarely in the domain of the federal government. However, we have seen even more robust forms of state citizenship in the past.
Between the Civil War and the early 1900s, more than a dozen states allowed noncitizens the right to vote, and many allowed them to cast a ballot not only in local but also in state and federal elections. These noncitizens simply had to declare their intention to become citizens, a relatively easy task given that the United States had fairly lax rules on immigration at the time — with the notable exception of Asians, who were excluded from immigration and naturalization.
The California Package does not go quite so far. In fact, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill last year that would have allowed legal permanent residents to serve on juries, and several attempts to allow noncitizens to vote in local elections, including school board elections, have failed.
Still, the California Package stands out as significant today, especially in light of the failure of comprehensive immigration reform and, more recently, the blocking of President Obama’s executive order on deportation relief and work authorization for the parents of U.S. citizens.
The California Package also stands out in contrast to the policies of its neighboring state — what we might call “the Arizona Package.” If we classified states by their immigrant policies, California and Arizona would occupy opposite ends of the spectrum.
Arizona has been passing restrictive measures on immigration since 2004, and even though the U.S. Supreme Court blocked most aspects of its enforcement law in a 2012 decision, the state still has some of the toughest measures on the books when it comes to employee verification, state voter registration and restrictions on accessing state benefits.
In Arizona, an undocumented high school graduate cannot qualify for in-state tuition, state financial aid or health benefits, even if she is the beneficiary of Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program. By contrast, an undocumented high school graduate in California can qualify for education and health benefits and ultimately find work as a board-certified accountant, architect or engineer. And she can do these things even if she is not a beneficiary of DACA.
Backers of California’s pro-integration laws have justified these measures as a way to get more immigrants contributing to local economies. Given the likelihood of continued policy gridlock in Washington, we can expect a number of liberal states to hear California’s message, and to follow suit.
Karthick Ramakrishnan is a professor of public policy, and Allan Colbern is a doctoral candidate in political science, at UC Riverside.