Fixing Immigration From the Ground Up


By THE EDITORIAL BOARD of the New York Times

The immigration marches and vigils that took place across the country on Saturday, uniting tens of thousands of people in more than 40 states, were a plaintive reminder that immigration reform — remember immigration reform? — is among the many pieces of business that remain unfinished while Congress is in lockdown.

Reform in the shape of a big, ambitious bill handily passed the Senate, 68 to 32, in June, then entered the abyss of the Republican-controlled House. Last week, House Democrats offered their version of the Senate bill, echoing its comprehensive formulas and adding strict border enforcement in a bid to attract Republican support. But that bill, too, is unlikely to go anywhere, given the House leadership’s refusal to allow a vote on any measure that includes possible citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants and their preference for piecemeal measures, dealing largely with enforcement.

As this stalemate continues, those seeking positive action should look to California, where a Democratic governor, Jerry Brown, a Democratic-controlled Legislature and a Republican Party conspicuously lacking in Tea Partyers have made strides in advancing a sensible immigration agenda. If the goal is to lessen the problems caused when a huge population lives outside the law, while protecting civil rights and public safety, then California — home to an estimated 2.5 million undocumented immigrants — is setting a good example.

On Saturday, in a powerful rebuke to the Obama administration and Congressional inaction, Mr. Brown signed the Trust Act, a law that will make it harder for federal agents to detain and deport unauthorized Californians who are non-criminals or minor offenders and pose no threat. “We’re not using our jails as a holding vat for the immigration service,” Mr. Brown said. That same day he signed a bill to allow qualified undocumented immigrants to become licensed as lawyers.

On Thursday, he signed a bill to allow driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, which advocates welcomed as a means to safer roads and greater economic opportunity. This followed earlier bills allowing legal permanent residents to work in polling places for elections and granting new labor rights to domestic workers, a largely immigrant work force whose members are often exploited and abused. A measure that awaits his signature would allow legal permanent residents to serve on juries. Together the bills put California far on the leading edge of expanding immigrant rights while finding humane, sensible solutions to a problem Washington refuses to solve.

The states cannot fix the whole system, of course, or legalize anybody. But they can try to address issues and prod Washington by example.

The question, as always, is whether and when Washington can be prodded to extend greater rights and possible citizenship to unauthorized immigrants. The shadow existence of 11 million people is unsustainable and mass deportation is not an option. The Obama administration has fed this fantasy; President Obama is on the brink of setting an ugly record — the deportation during his time in office of two million people, of whom only a fraction are dangerous criminals. More than 100,000 people have been deported since the Senate passed its bill in June.

But his former homeland security Secretary, Janet Napolitano, who has just taken over as the head of the University of California system, told students last week that she had urged Governor Brown to sign the Trust Act, the law written to curb the excesses of the very department she once led. It’s encouraging evidence that once outside the fog of Washington, the head clears.

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