With the Obama administration and Congress stalled on immigration reform, California has joined the growing parade of states acting on their own to pressure Washington into action.
The Democrat-controlled state Senate on Wednesday night passed its version of the Dream Act – a bill that would allow illegal immigrants who attended state high schools for three or more years to apply for state-funded college financial aid. The federal version of the bill, which was most recently defeated in December, allows a path to citizenship for illegal-immigrant students and members of the military who were brought to the US as children.
The California Senate vote is a sign that the immigration debate at state level is being driven as much by those sympathetic to illegal immigration as those determined to curtail it, says Catherine Wilson, an immigration analyst at Villanova University in Pennsylvania.
The states cracking down on immigration have gotten more press attention and skewed the public perception of what is really happening, she says. Following the passage of Arizona's SB 1070 – which requires police to ask for identification from anyone they suspect of being undocumented – four other states enacted copycat legislation: Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina, and Alabama. Utah opted for a hybrid of both tightened law enforcement as well as a temporary guest worker program. All these laws are being challenged in court.
By contrast, nine states, including California, have enacted laws permitting anyone in the state for a certain amount of time to pay in-state rates. A handful have also passed their own Dream Acts, offering state aid to illegal immigrants.
"It just goes to show that in the absence of federal immigration legislation, states are really taking control of the issue," says Professor Wilson. But "it's important for the public to understand that far fewer states are following Arizona's lead and more are following the direction of California."
It is natural that the American state with the most immigrants should take the lead on this issue, some say.
"We have one of the most diverse populations in the country. It is the right thing to do," says Barbara O'Connor, director emeritus of the Institute for Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento. "California often exports progressive ideas, and coupled with the Obama administration's deportation changes in recent weeks, this is a significant law."
However, many national immigration-reform groups say the bill is a bad idea in a state facing major budget shortfalls and gargantuan cuts in education.
"The actions of the California Legislature come against the backdrop of the state's fiscal crisis," says Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform. "While billions of dollars are being slashed from needed programs, while state universities and colleges are cutting programs and admission, and while there is an insufficient amount of government aid available to help legal residents pay for college, the Legislature continues to work overtime to find new benefits they can bestow on illegal aliens."
Immigrant-rights groups are understandably elated.
"It was bound to happen. In the absence of cost-effective, humane, and smart legislation at the federal level, immigrant-rich states can only integrate not denigrate or persecute their immigrant community," says Jorge-Mario Cabrera, spokesman for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.
He says he expects California will carve the way for others states to follow.
The California Assembly is expected to pass the bill within a week, and most observers predict Gov. Jerry Brown (D) will sign it because of promises he made during his gubernatorial bid.
The Senate estimates the cost at about $40 million a year. About 40,000 undocumented immigrants now attend the state's three-tiered higher education system, which includes 10 campuses in the University of California, 23 in California State University, and 112 community colleges.
Other immigrant-rights groups say Governor Brown will be in political hot water if he doesn't sign.
"The immigration issue is now being used by both parties, Democrats and Republicans, as a way to win or lose elections," says Randy Ertll, executive director of El Centro de Accion Social in Pasadena. "Tallies are being kept on how certain legislators are voting when it comes to immigration issues, and during campaign time pro- or anti-immigration campaigns are launched to persuade voters."
"Governor Brown will weigh his political future on the California Dream Act," he says.