2012-05-21 08:00:00

On Immigrant Day, California Offers Signs of Hope

Today is the last day to register to vote in the June 5th election in California. Even though voter registration deadlines come and go each year, for immigrant communities in California this one is critical because there’s probably more at stake this election year for immigrants and their families than ever.

Today hundreds of immigrants from across California will also be converging upon Sacramento to urge policy-makers to pass legislation that supports immigrant workers and their families. Immigrants in California have a reason to be hopeful. In 2011, the state passed landmark legislation benefiting immigrant communities, ranging from providing undocumented students financial assistance to changes in car impoundment policies. This show of civic engagement at the state level is important to our state as our national election nears.

As California’s legislature considers far reaching policies in support of immigrants in 2012, the environment nationally is another story altogether. From Arizona’s anti-immigrant law encouraging racial profiling and harassment of undocumented immigrants to copycat measures in several other states, policy-makers are scapegoating immigrants on the back of a tidal wave of anti-immigrant rhetoric and bias. Sadly, President Obama's administration has not delivered on promised reforms. Deportations have reached more than 1 million since Obama took office.

So what is different about California? What lessons does it hold for the rest of the country? Perhaps most importantly, California’s demographics began changing decades ago while demographic shifts are just beginning to occur in much of the country. As a result, many elected officials represent immigrant heavy areas and come from immigrant families themselves. Additionally, California has a large population of immigrants who have been here for decades, and are voting, are civically engaged, and active members of their communities. All of these factors and more contribute to a state that understands immigrants and their contributions and has helped to create fertile ground for bold policy-making.

This year with a cloud of uncertainty hanging over immigrant communities from coast to coast, we need California to be the light that breaks through the clouds.

California saw a tremendous rise in activism in 2008. We’ve seen this activism give rise to even more interest in the pursuit of pro-immigrant legislation. Two important examples are the TRUST Act, which would curb the harmful effect of the S-Comm program, including the unjust deportation of tens of thousands of Californians and consequent separation of families. (Under S-Comm, or Secure Communities, local police are required to share the fingerprints of all arrestees with federal immigration authorities.) The other is the defense of nannies, cleaners and caregivers through AB 889, the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, which has led to calls throughout California for lawmakers to protect health and human services programs for children, the elderly and persons with disabilities.

The TRUST Act sets a clear, minimum standard for local governments not to submit to the Immigration Service’s requests to detain people for deportation unless the individual has a serious or violent felony conviction. The bill also guards against profiling and wrongful detention of citizens and crime victims and witnesses. S-Comm is spreading all over the country, entangling local police with ICE - just like Arizona. The TRUST act is a powerful counterweight to this climate of hate.

The Domestic Worker’s Bill of Rights is landmark legislation that would give domestic workers such as caregivers of children and the elderly labor protections for the first time in California. It would require that domestic workers be guaranteed overtime pay, rest breaks and the ability to use kitchen facilities to cook their own food.

In addition to these proposals, there are a number of other important bills winding their way through the legislature that would advance pro-immigrant policies. The bills present solutions to issues ranging from public safety and family unity to workers rights, religious freedom, and consumer protections. During this legislative session, at least five anti-immigrant bills were defeated before reaching the Assembly or Senate floors.

Our challenge as immigrant advocates here in California is to keep moving forward with our eyes on the future, with a will to transform that civic engagement into an even stronger partnership with other Californians who understand that immigrants are key to California’s prosperity-- as workers, entrepreneurs, teachers, health care providers, civic leaders, and as youth leaders. 

Today, May 21st, we’ll fan out through the state capitol to speak with legislators and get the hard work done to support policies that will help integrate immigrants into our state and communities. We’ll be there in favor of fiscal and tax reform to help solve our budget crisis. We’re there to say that Californians can, and will help lead our country as we negotiate meaningful immigration reform and find ways to recognize immigrant contributions and empower them to continue to help build that future prosperity we all seek. So ultimately, we can put these days of heartbreak for many immigrants and their loved ones behind us.

Reshma Shamasunder is the Executive Director of the California Immigrant Policy Center, a statewide organization that advocates on behalf of immigrants and their families in the California legislature and state government. CIPC, along with dozens of organizations across the state, is coordinating an annual “Immigrant Day” in Sacramento today.

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