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California Game Changers

California Game Changers: Reaffirming Affirmative Action

Co-published by International Business Times
Of all the national trendsetting ballot measures decided by California voters in the last generation, perhaps none was more divisive than Proposition 209. It banned racial considerations — otherwise known as affirmative action.

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Erin Aubry Kaplan

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Illustration: Nicolás Zúñiga

Reinstating affirmative action is not as pie-in-the-sky as it sounds. A 2014 Field Poll found strong support for it across the board.


Co-published by International Business Times

Of all the controversial, national trendsetting ballot measures decided by California voters in the last generation, perhaps none was more hotly debated or divisive than Proposition 209. Passed in 1996, the initiative banned racial considerations — otherwise known as affirmative action — as a criteria in state university admissions, as well as in state contracting and hiring. But it was the potential impact on higher education that stoked the most passion among Prop. 209 supporters and detractors alike. The latter decried the ban from the beginning, predicting that the numbers of blacks and other underrepresented ethnic minorities would fall off precipitously and begin to erode California’s vaunted public higher education model of quality and access for all. Despite the accuracy of that prediction, Prop. 209 has for 21 years withstood court challenges and high-profile critiques.

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The opposition to Prop. 209 went underground, but it never went away. Now, possibly because of the open hostility to matters of racial justice that’s already defined the fledgling Trump era, California’s pro-affirmative action movement is going public again. In August, black and Latino lawmakers in Sacramento made it clear they are preparing to make the repeal of Prop. 209 an issue in next year’s gubernatorial race.

Assemblyman Chris Holden (D-Pasadena) sent a letter on behalf of the state Black and Latino Legislative Caucuses to the candidates running for governor in 2018, asking them if they would support a repeal of Prop. 209. The Democratic candidates all said yes. The notably diverse candidate group includes former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, former state schools chief Delaine Eastin and State Treasurer John Chiang. Holden, who chairs the Black Caucus, says the key to eventual repeal is a campaign that thoroughly educates, or re-educates the public about how affirmative action benefits everyone by increasing fairness and access to institutions that are, after all, supported by all California taxpayers.

From 1994 to 2010, black acceptance rates dropped from 51% to 15% at UC Berkeley, and from 58% to 14% at UCLA.

“We need to get conversations going around the need for looking at how students of color, especially blacks and Latinos, are not making the cut for UC and Cal State,” says Holden. “There’s a lot of misunderstanding and confusion out there, and ways to drive wedges. We need to be more proactive about the issue.”

Reinstating affirmative action is not as pie-in-the-sky as it sounds. A 2014 Field Poll found that a state far more diverse than it was in 1996 strongly supports affirmative action across the board—57 percent of whites, 81 percent of Latinos, 83 percent of blacks. The numbers suggest that if Prop. 209 were voted on today it would likely lose (but only if it was worded accurately—the original Prop. 209, which was called a “civil rights initiative,” asked voters if they opposed “discrimination” and never mentioned the phrase affirmative action). Twenty-one years later, there is good reason to be concerned: Since the passage of Prop. 209, the University of California student body has become much less diverse and increasingly less representative of California demographics. The fact that the UC system, notably on its Berkeley and Los Angeles campuses, has become more elite and more competitive in the last generation has only worsened the education crisis.

A 2013 report by the Campaign for College Opportunity showed that black students have particularly suffered. From 1994 to 2010, the percentage of African-American applicants admitted to the university system dropped to 58 percent, from about 75 percent, according to the report, based on data provided by the colleges and universities. By comparison, 83 percent of white students who applied in 2010 were admitted, along with 85 percent of Asians and 76 percent of Latinos.

The drop in black acceptance is more stark at the two most elite campuses. From 1994 to 2010, black acceptance rates dropped from 51 percent to 15 percent at the University of California at Berkeley, and from 58 percent to 14 percent at UCLA, the study showed. In 2006, black acceptance reached its nadir at UCLA, where the black freshman class numbered a paltry 96 students, the lowest since 1973.

Latinos have made some gains; in 2014, the percentage of Latino admits to UC was higher than whites for the first time. But overall the numbers and the admissions rate did not keep pace with the growing Latino population. It was partly because of this chronic lagging behind that led state Senator Ed Hernandez (D-West Covina) that year to author a proposed constitutional amendment to repeal the Prop. 209 ban of racial considerations in university admissions. Known as Senate Constitutional Amendment No. 5, it passed the Senate and was widely expected to pass the Assembly; despite Prop. 209’s longevity, affirmative action has always been supported by Democrats.

But then the bill hit an unexpected and unpleasant snag. Groups of Asian-Americans, notably Chinese American parents, raised concerns that that their considerable representation in UC schools, especially on the most sought-after campuses, would be threatened by affirmative action’s goal of ethnic balance. Three Asian-American senators who had initially supported Hernandez’s bill reversed course, and other Asian lawmakers in the Assembly vowed to oppose it. The bill was ultimately shelved. The incident sparked intra-party, intra-ethnic political tensions and raised questions about the presumed solidarity of people of color around supporting affirmative action.

Still, the ensuing political fallout in Sacramento did not officially change Asian support of affirmative action. Holden is hoping that part of the new public education campaign for next year will involve John Chiang, one of many Asian-Americans who actively opposed Prop. 209 in 1996 (though he was somewhat vague on the issue in 2014 during the dust-up over SCA 5.) Asians as a group have historically supported affirmative action goals and still do; the challenge going forward is channeling that support into reviving a public policy that most equitably serves the state’s increasingly multi-ethnic public.

Karthick Ramakrishnan, an associate dean at UC Riverside’s School of Public Policy, said in 2014 that Democrats would do well need to keep closer track of attitudes and concerns as demographics in the state shift further away from majority white, a shift that includes a fast-growing, and more diverse, Asian population.

Holden says the time is ripe: “We want to make sure that the doors are open, [especially] because there’s such a critical need for students trained in science, technology, engineering and math to work in places like Silicon Valley. Black and brown students need to be educated at the highest levels.” There’s also the bigger picture of political culture — a picture California could positively influence.“With every presidential tweet there’s a new effort at racial separation in this country,” Holden says. “This is an important time for California on a lot of fronts—environmentally, health-care-wise, educational access– to create a more just society and give opportunities to all.”


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California Game Changers

California Game Changers: Nine Big Ideas to Fix a Golden State — And a Nation

This week Capital & Main offers nine not-so-modest proposals for solving problems that challenge America’s most populous state — and the nation as a whole. Our series’ reporting shows that California remains a place where ideas are born — and where dreams can still come true.

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Illustration: Design Urban

Baristas, Uber drivers and Amazon warehouse associates all work hard for their wages, but can only dream of the health care, sick pay and retirement benefits enjoyed by “traditional” employees. Meanwhile, students at some state universities pay stratospheric tuitions that top those at Harvard and Yale. And in immigration courts children as young as 3, without the benefit of counsel, face seasoned government prosecutors bent on deporting them.

These dystopian scenes are not pulled from some hard-scrabble red state but from the richest and most liberal state in the world’s wealthiest country — California.

It wasn’t that long ago that people came to the Golden State to reinvent themselves or, at least, ensure that their children would have more than a fighting chance to achieve a comfortable level of economic security. It’s not written anywhere in the state constitution, but there was always an implicit bargain: Hard work and perseverance would be rewarded with opportunity, while the social and racial barriers found elsewhere would be mitigated, at least in the larger urban enclaves, by a higher degree of tolerance. Now, however, Californians find themselves rolling backward in time to a point where the only things guaranteed by hard work are blisters and debt.

This week, at a time when many issues vital to American society are raised and dismissed in the twinkle of 140-character tweets, Capital & Main offers nine not-so-modest proposals for solving problems that challenge America’s most populous state — and the nation as a whole. These fixes are not futuristic daydreams or policy parlor tricks; instead, they are based on legislative debates that are taking place today in nearly every county among lawmakers, activists and academics. Our list of stories includes reports on a little-known movement to provide intravenous drug users with safe and supervised environments; the case for repealing the anti-affirmative action measure known as Proposition 209; and how the state’s vanishing stock of affordable housing could be fortified by stopping one form of mansionization. These and other stories will show that California remains a place where ideas are born — and where dreams can still come true.


Tuesday, Oct. 3
No-Harm Drug Reform, Judith Lewis Mernit. Co-published by International Business Times.
Immigration Courts, by Robin Urevich. Co-published by International Business Times.

Wednesday, Oct. 4
Reaffirming Affirmative Action, by Erin Aubry Kaplan. Co-published by International Business Times.
Free Public Colleges, by Bill Raden. Co-published by International Business Times.
Can We Ban Fracking? by Judith Lewis Mernit. Co-published by International Business Times.

Thursday, Oct. 5
Portable Job Benefits, by Robin Urevich. Co-published by International Business Times.
Proposition 13 Reform, by Gabriel Thompson. Co-published by International Business Times.

Friday, Oct. 6
Affordable Housing, by David Dayen. Co-published by International Business Times.
Single-Payer Health Care, by Bill Raden.  Co-published by International Business Times.
Video: A Nurse Speaks Out for Single-Payer Health Care.


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California Game Changers

A Nurse Speaks Out for Single-Payer Health Care

Melissa Johnson-Camacho, an oncology nurse, speaks out in favor of a single-payer health-care system for California, explaining how the experience of caring for a young woman riddled with metastasized cancer, and having few family resources, has haunted her.

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Melissa Johnson-Camacho, an oncology nurse in Davis, speaks out in favor of a single-payer health-care system for California, explaining how the experience of caring for a young woman riddled with metastasized cancer, and having few family resources, has haunted her. See accompanying story.

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California Game Changers

California Game Changers: Birthing a Single-Payer Health Care System

Co-published by International Business Times
There’s little economic reason why California couldn’t go it alone with its own single-payer health insurance — and a host of reasons why it should.

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Bill Raden

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Illustration: Nicolás Zúñiga

Healthy California’s single-payer plan could deliver coverage to every Californian for about $331 billion, vs. the $370 billion the state currently spends.


Co-published by International Business Times

 This autumn could prove decisive for the question of whether California may again be on track to enjoy what the rest of the industrialized world has long taken for granted — universal, government-provided health insurance, a dream that dates back to the Truman administration. Although the Affordable Care Act was spectacularly successful in lowering the state’s uninsured rate from 17.2 percent to 7.3 percent, according to the latest census data, that still represents a roughly 2.8 million-person gap in California’s health coverage. And health care advocates argue that too many with private insurance continue to fall victim to the catastrophic failure of a for-profit health care model plagued by extraordinary complexity and costly administrative inefficiency.

Paul Y. Song, an oncologist who sits on the board of Physicians for a National Health Program, told Capital & Main that with or without a GOP repeal, the withering Republican assault on the ACA has exacerbated the financial hardships of many recently insured Californians struggling simply to maintain their coverage. Song is also the co-chair of Healthy California, a campaign that supports passage of state Senate Bill 562, a single-payer measure that stalled in Sacramento when Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood) tabled it in June.

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“The number of people reporting difficulty paying monthly premiums has gone up to nearly 37 percent,” Song noted. “California ranks third from the bottom in terms of narrow networks, which means that if you have an emergency and you need to see a doctor, chances are the majority of the time a doctor will not be in your network and you’ll get charged all of these out-of-network prices. … Anthem announced earlier this year that they were going to raise rates. They were either going to pull out of the exchange in California in certain areas, or raise rates 35 percent. People are now waking up and saying enough is enough.”

California Democratic leaders, state labor and health care advocates have never seemed more galvanized around the principle that quality health care is a fundamental right for all Californians. The divisive question of how to best achieve it is set to be taken up in a series of hearings over the next several months by the Assembly Select Committee on Health Care Delivery Systems and Universal Coverage, announced in March by Speaker Rendon. The hearings begin October 23-24.

For both single-payer advocates and opponents in Sacramento, as well as Washington, the debate is ultimately about far more than health care. Battle lines have formed around bedrock questions of who we want to be as a people: Should suspicion of “big government” take priority over the broader welfare of the population? Will the cruelties of the unfettered marketplace be tolerated in the name of American individualism?

In the meantime, experiencing the harrowing contradictions of California’s health care system continues to be the day-to-day reality of front-line caregivers. Melissa Johnson-Camacho, an oncology nurse in Davis who has also spoken in favor of single payer before the U.S. Senate, told Capital & Main how she remains haunted by the experience of caring for a young woman riddled with metastasized cancer. 

Oncology Nurse: “I went to school to help people, not to follow up with the pharmacy to make sure my patients’ meds are going to be covered.”

Because the girl’s cancer had spread to her lungs, she was at risk of drowning in her own pleural fluid and her life now hinged on a daily supply of pharmaceutical-grade catheter bags to safely drain the lungs.

“Her mom was with her as a caregiver, so she starts telling me about the drains and that she would change them more often, but they couldn’t afford it,” Johnson-Camacho said. “It was unspoken, but I know her mom was [thinking], ‘How much supplies am I going to need when I know she’s not going to be here much longer?’”

Facing renewal of the girl’s crippling annual deductible of her private insurance plan, the family was trying to stockpile her supply of bags, which can list for around $5,000 per day, by exceeding their recommended capacity.

“Nobody should ever have to make a decision like this,” said Johnson-Camacho. “Especially when you’re paying into a system. It was just angering. It was sobering. It was tragic. That was one of many times that I thought, ‘We’ve got to change this.’”

That’s why, Johnson-Camacho offered, she’ll be joining in the Healthy California campaign’s Medicare-for-All October Weekend of Action, in which she and fellow activists hope to canvass all 80 Assembly districts across the state to urge voters to flood Sacramento with letters demanding action on SB 562.

“There’s a lot of different forces out there that don’t want to see this bill move forward,” explained Don Nielsen, chief lobbyist for the California Nurses Association (CNA), which is a sponsor of the bill (and a financial supporter of this website). “Select committees can’t do anything other than take testimony. They can’t move our bill. And we’re concerned that the process is more about slowing down the momentum of the incredible public support for Medicare for All, single payer and SB 562. People know that the system is broken. They want to see it fixed.”

Rendon’s press spokesperson, Kevin Liao, countered that far from being a stalling maneuver, the Select Committee was designed to allow a broader discussion on getting to health care for all, and that nothing was stopping SB 562’s authors from redressing the bill’s “potentially fatal flaws”: “Speaker Rendon laid out a clear path for SB 562 — the Senate can send to the Assembly workable legislation that includes financing, delivery of care and cost control.”

At $7,549 per person, California now spends more per capita on health care than Canada ($5,292) and France ($4,959).

But Healthy California’s timetable to iron out those critical details and then get the bill through committee and floor votes, and finally to the desk of a less-than-enthusiastic Governor Jerry Brown by the end of the 2018 session is ambitious, reflected Anthony Wright, executive director of Health Access California. The veteran consumer health advocate, who has lobbied on behalf of universal, single-payer health care bills and initiatives dating back to Proposition 186’s Medicare for All-type ballot initiative in 1994, said that the coalition has its work cut out.

“A health system can be very complex and confusing,” said Wright. “The same obstacles that prevented us in previous attempts still remain, and in fact loom even larger. Vermont had an Obama administration that was willing to work with them to figure out the various financing and other issues. For the next three, four years, we’ll have a Trump administration in that same role, which will probably not be helpful.”

The executive director of the California School Employees Association, Dave Low, concurred. “We need federal waivers to a California single-payer bill,” he explained. “We know that there is a heavy lift. Just the poll that recently came out showing that we don’t even have a majority support on the single-payer issue shows that we have work to do, and we want to do that work.” (Disclosure: CSEA is a financial supporter of this website.)

Trump aside, it turns out that there’s little economic reason why California couldn’t go it alone with single payer, and a host of reasons why it should. A CNA-commissioned study found that by lowering administrative costs, controlling the prices of pharmaceuticals and fees for physicians and hospitals, reducing unnecessary treatments and expanding preventive care, Healthy California’s single payer could deliver coverage to every California resident for about $331 billion, or 10 percent less than the $370 billion the state currently spends.

And California has size in its favor. The state’s $2.4 trillion annual gross domestic product ranks neck-and-neck with France’s GDP, and California’s population of 39 million puts it above Canada’s. Yet at $7,549 per person, the state spends considerably more on health care with its market-based system than both countries — $5,292 for Canada; $4,959 for France — do with their universal single-payer systems, while getting substantially less bang for its buck. According to the Commonwealth Fund, while California ranks 14th in the nation on health care access, efficiency and equity, the U.S. consistently comes in last or near last on those measures relative to its industrialized peers. In terms of infant mortality, the state’s 4.7 deaths per 1,000 births places it just behind Cuba (4.51), Canada (4.53) and Greece (4.58), and 40 places behind Japan.

What I see daily on my job is that many children who have serious illnesses, their families have delayed care because they couldn’t afford access to care early on,” observed Martha Kuhl, a pediatrics oncology nurse at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in Oakland, who has been in the field for 36 years. “Even when they had insurance, they couldn’t afford the point-of-care copays. They were having trouble with deductibles, so they would delay care until it felt absolutely necessary. In a child with cancer, that can seriously affect the outcome and the treatment protocol, and actually whether or not your child survives.”

“I’ve been a nurse for a long time. These days, business is the first priority. Insurance companies’ primary goal is to make money.”

Although Dickensian accounts of parents being forced to choose between losing their home or losing a sick child are common, Kuhl attributes much of the system failure to the nightmarish administrative labyrinth imposed by the private insurance marketplace.

“It’s tragic,” Johnson-Camacho agreed. “I went to school to help people, not to follow up with the pharmacy to make sure my patients’ meds are going to be covered.”

For the private insurance and pharmaceutical industries, the single-payer fight in California, which has historically been a national political bellwether, represents a struggle for their very survival. Not surprisingly, groups opposing SB 562 have given more than $1.5 million to the Assembly’s Democratic caucus since the 2012 election cycle. In just the last three election cycles, the International Business Times recently reported, Assembly Democrats have received more than $2.7 million in pharmaceutical and health insurance industries contributions.

“I’ve been a nurse for a long time, and I have watched the system change,” Kuhl reflected ruefully. “There were always people who didn’t have health insurance or couldn’t afford the care that they needed, but it felt like a nicer system in some way. These days, business is the first priority. Insurance companies’ primary goal is to make money, and they do that by denying care.”


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California Game Changers

California Game Changers: Preserve the Affordable Housing We Have

Co-published by International Business Times
In California’s recent legislative “grand compromise” of an affordable housing package, developers got subsidies for building and a streamlined path to construction. It’s hard to see what they gave up in the exchange.

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 No bill passed in 2017 protects existing affordable-housing stock or ends the downsizing of tracts from multi-family to single-family.


Co-published by International Business Times

 Last week, Governor Brown and Democratic leaders visited the Hunter’s View low-income development in San Francisco to sign a package of 15 bills designed to combat California’s affordable housing crisis. The package included a permanent revenue stream for affordable housing projects through a real estate document fee, a housing bond for the 2018 ballot, and “streamlined” development of multi-family structures through easing permitting requirements. Governor Brown signed all of them September 29.

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Elected officials made housing affordability a priority in 2017 amid a growing recognition from academics and advocates that California has reached a point of crisis. The median home price in the Golden State is twice the national average, and average monthly rents also far outpace the rest of the country. Stories of four-hour commutes are as commonplace as stories of families leaving the state because of expensive housing. The lack of affordable units fuels inequality, sprawl, toxic emissions that overheat the planet, increased homelessness and what the Census Bureau recently targeted as the highest poverty rate in the nation.

“It’s the single biggest problem California faces,” University of California, Berkeley economics professor Ken Rosen told the Sacramento Bee.

The Coalition for Economic Survival estimates Los Angeles loses 7 affordable-housing units daily — 22,000 rent-controlled units since 2001.

But even supporters of the spate of legislation passed this year aren’t willing to say that it solves the problem. The funding isn’t big enough, and the costs of building remain too high. That’s why it’s puzzling that the bills, so focused on increasing construction of new housing, miss entirely the other side of the issue: the loss of existing housing. A great example of this neglect can be told through the story of the First Baptist Church of Venice.

It’s a 12,000-square-foot, brick-and-stucco structure, with a large sign announcing its presence to the Oakwood neighborhood. The church was once a focal point for a predominantly African-American community by the Pacific Ocean. But Oakwood is now one of the most expensive areas in all of California, after new Google and Snapchat offices moved in nearby and gentrification followed.

Between the church and its parking area, First Baptist sits on more than 29,000 square feet, enough room for affordable units for dozens of families. But the church’s buyers want to convert it into a single-family home. This is a prime example of an oft-neglected phenomenon that reduces the possibility of maximizing available housing for families.

“It’s such a heartbreaker,” Sue Kaplan, a local housing activist in Venice, told me. “This was the first African-American church in Venice. We’re losing the black churches.”

Jay Penske, CEO of the media conglomerate behind Variety magazine and over a dozen other brands, bought the property last February under somewhat contentious circumstances. The pastor claims to have gotten permission from the aging owner to sell the church, but parishioners have fought the matter in court.

Despite this uncertainty, the local neighborhood council in Venice approved construction of the house for Penske and his family, without a single opposing vote. This is fairly unsurprising, since the architect of the project, Robert Thibodeau, is a member of the neighborhood council (he voted yes). The Department of City Planning held a hearing on final approval of the project in August.

It may seem reasonable to dismiss this as a hyper-local issue, something outside the confines of the state legislature. But the entire housing package this year was crafted to force California localities to change their land-use policies. Senate Bill 35 intervenes in local decision-making directly, requiring expedited approval of large projects in cities that aren’t meeting state-mandated housing goals. Senate Bill 167 fines cities $10,000 per unit if they don’t allow certain developments under the state’s Housing Accountability Act. The state legislature has the demonstrated ability to insert itself into local housing questions.

Even supporters of the spate of legislation passed this year aren’t willing to say that it solves the problem of affordable housing.

That means the legislature could have passed a law that said, until the state reaches its building goals, no new construction that doesn’t match the maximum allowable units in the current zoning code should be permitted. If you can build up to two units on a lot, you shouldn’t be able to build anything less. If you’re allowed to build four, so be it. This would protect existing affordable housing stock and end the downsizing of tracts from multi-family to single-family. It would be an emergency response befitting the crisis every legislator rightfully decries, and it would stop the conversion of the First Baptist Church of Venice in its tracks.

But no bill passed by the state legislature addresses that. Critically, nearly all the interventions the legislature made in 2017 remove local restrictions on building. “We do need to build more affordable housing,” said Larry Gross of the Coalition for Economic Survival, an affordable-housing advocacy group in Los Angeles. “But we need a two-pronged approach that builds more while preserving the existing stock. Anything other than that isn’t serious.” Gross’ organization estimates that Los Angeles alone loses seven affordable-housing units every day 22,000 rent-controlled units since 2001.

The multi-family projects slated for accelerated approval under SB 35 aren’t even guaranteed to be affordable. “That does nothing to meet our affordable housing needs,” said Omar Taylor, an East Oakland tenant who represents the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, in a statement. Assemblyman Richard Bloom’s AB 1505, which restores the ability of cities to require affordable units in all large-scale projects, did pass, a critical step. However, it only gives cities the option of inclusionary zoning. While large-scale developer projects must be quickly approved, cities can ignore the idea of forcing affordable units in them.

This gives clues about who drives the legislative process in Sacramento. In this “grand compromise” of an affordable housing package, developers get subsidies for building and an expedited, streamlined path to construction. It’s hard to see what they gave up in the exchange. “How can we keep working families in their homes when we’ve giving free rein for profit-thirsty luxury developers to take over our neighborhoods?” Taylor asked, in his statement.

Lawmakers introduced legislation to repeal Costa-Hawkins, but it never got a final vote.

The state legislature, not just city council members, has been complicit in this. The 1995 Costa-Hawkins Act pre-empts municipal rent-control laws for single-family units, new construction and new tenants — giving landlords and developers huge incentives to eject families. Combined with the Ellis Act, which enables landlords to evict entire buildings to convert from affordable rentals to market-rate or luxury condos, these laws tilt the legal structure toward developers and cut directly against affordable housing goals.

Ellis Act usage has risen in 2017, as developers see the opportunities of a hot housing market. A related scheme involves landlords evicting tenants and converting units or entire apartment complexes into lucrative Airbnb properties.

Bloom and other lawmakers introduced legislation to repeal Costa-Hawkins, but it never got a final vote. Nor did anything that would have forced developers to earn something less than the maximum possible revenue from every unit they build. That’s the big idea advocates say lawmakers must embrace – ensuring that the housing crisis doesn’t get solved on the backs of longtime residents.

“Everything where developers have to share in the crisis has the least chance of getting through,” said Larry Gross. “If they expect us to put faith in private developers providing us affordable housing, we’re doomed.”


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California Game Changers: Reimagining Job Benefits in a Gig World

Co-published by International Business Times
“I think I have economic PTSD,” says Sami Abdou. With almost no savings or retirement account, the 32-year-old TV director is not even close to being able to buy a house.

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Robin Urevich

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Illustration: Nicolás Zúñiga

Today’s tech revolution is just as disruptive as the manufacturing boom of a hundred years ago that shifted work from farms to factories.


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Sami Abdou should be feeling pretty content. After more than a decade of struggling to patch together a living, he directs TV segments for an Emmy-nominated documentary series now in its “umpteenth season” on a major network.

But, he says, “I think I have economic PTSD.”

This year he expects to gross $90,000, but he still can’t stop checking his bank account or worrying about a precipitous dip in his income next year.

“I’m definitely fortunate,” he says, “but that could go away in a second.”

Abdou sits in a mom-and-pop coffee joint in Los Angeles’ Echo Park neighborhood, gazing at his MacBook through thick square glasses and waiting for his next assignment. He knows it’s coming but his network isn’t paying him to wait, and he’s anxious.

With almost no savings or retirement account, he’s not even close to being able to buy a house. “I pay for all my own benefits – medical and dental,” he says. “I’m 32 and this is the first year I’ve been able to have those things for the whole year.”

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Abdou isn’t alone. Some economists argue the traditional employee-employer relationship, which has undergone tectonic shifts since the 1980s — is going the way of the Leave It to Beaver family of the 1950s. In 2015 the federal General Accounting Office found that as many as 40 percent of Americans are considered independent contractors, day laborers, W-2 subcontractors, or work part-time or in temp jobs. All of the net job growth in the economy between 2005 and 2015 was in this sort of contingent work, according to a 2016 study by economists Alan Krueger of Princeton University and Lawrence Katz of Harvard. Some of these non-traditional workers lack basic protections like workers’ compensation or unemployment insurance, and most lack health insurance, sick pay or retirement.

Many workers are on the outside looking in at the nation’s prosperity, argued Service Employees International Union Vice President David Rolf in an American Prospect article co-written earlier this year with venture capitalist Nick Hanauer. One way to change that: Offer so-called portable benefits – basic protections such as health care, retirement and sick pay — that would follow all workers from job to job.

Last year the Federal Reserve found that 46 percent of Americans don’t have $400 in case of an emergency.

“Imagine an entirely new system,” Rolf and Hanauer wrote, “that substantially closes the gap left by the ongoing decline of secure full-time employment.”

Indeed, advocacy for a new safety net for American workers gained traction two years ago, when the unlikely alliance between business and labor that the Prospect article described, called for more flexible benefits for workers who piece together an income from multiple sources or hop from gig to gig.

In a single day a driver, for example, could earn contributions from both Uber and Lyft. If he logged on to TaskRabbit to do a home-repair job, he’d get a prorated benefit payment from that platform, too. Workers would choose their benefits from a menu and the whole system would be administered by nonprofits, professional associations, credit unions or labor unions.

The founders of Lyft and the CEO of Care.com, along with other tech entrepreneurs who fuel multimillion and -billion dollar ventures with armies of gig workers lacking benefits, began to argue that all Americans deserved them.

“A lot of them genuinely see the risk this poses ethically, economically, societally and politica lly,” says Ben Mangan, a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. “They like to fix a big problem.”

The good news, says Nell Abernathy, a vice president at the Roosevelt Institute, a progressive think tank, is this country is rich enough to pull people from the brink of economic collapse — where nearly half of Americans currently find themselves. In 2016, the Federal Reserve found that 46 percent of Americans don’t have $400 in case of an emergency. A new 21st-century social contract, in which basic benefits aren’t tied to employment, could change that and bring a raft of societal benefits along with it, Abernathy said. Clearly consumer spending would rise. But she noted there is evidence that financial security also boosts health outcomes, child development and entrepreneurship.

In California, agricultural workers, writers and other creative types would be among the millions who would get some breathing space from the financial squeeze that has become their daily reality, Abernathy said.

Many gig workers lack job benefits simply because their employers wrongly call them “independent contractors.”

“There is a real moral case, but there’s simply an economic case that we will be better served as a nation if people can achieve their real potential.”

“Not so fast, says Ken Jacobs, who chairs UC Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education. While he sees nothing wrong with portable benefits and the security they’d bring, he thinks the scope of the problem is more limited than many portable benefits advocates argue it is. Economic inequality is real, and many people – even those with traditional jobs — lack basic benefits, he says. But he believes the speed at which the gig economy is growing is vastly overstated. And many gig workers lack benefits simply because their employers wrongly call them “independent contractors,” as opposed to company employees, and get away with it.

A legal battle over who can properly be called a contractor is still raging. Two years ago, a National Labor Relations Board decision  appeared to put responsibility for contractors squarely on the shoulders of the bosses for whom they worked, but higher courts have disputed the labor board’s conclusion in some subsequent cases, and agreed in others.

In fact, thousands of workers at tech companies like Uber, GrubHub and Amazon are suing those companies in class actions to demand the employee status that they say they’re legally due and the benefits that come with it. Earlier this year, Lyft paid out $27 million to settle a similar lawsuit, although under the settlement its drivers remain independent contractors.

The economic upheaval that has left these gig workers and many others working without a safety net is due in part to an intense corporate focus on short-term profits, says Ben Mangan. A weakened labor movement is another factor (only six percent of private sector workers are unionized); so is the rise of technologies that allow companies to outsource work anywhere around the world. Today’s tech revolution is just as disruptive as the manufacturing boom of a hundred years ago that shifted work from farms to factories, says Nell Abernathy. And, just as they did a century ago, worker advocates are debating exactly how to offer basic worker protections in a changing economy.

One program lets multiple employers contribute $5 per week to a house-cleaning worker. Cleaners earn sick time immediately and can add other benefits.

Ken Jacobs says that while he’s for state-administered health care and retirement, he’d also support worker-run funds for things like sick pay or vacation. Rolf backs a Washington state bill that would require companies to contribute 25 percent of a contract workers’ pay – up to $6 per hour — to a nonprofit portable benefit fund for workers’ compensation and other benefit options like retirement, health care or paid time off.

A similar bill in the New York state legislature is backed by gig-employer Handy.com and would create portable benefits in exchange for recognition that the company’s fix-it workers and others are independent contractors.

But, warns Jacobs, the bill is a dangerous one: “Details matter here. In exchange for portable benefits, are you granting these companies the ability to get out of [granting] benefits they would otherwise provide?”

A major federal portable benefits program is what’s needed, Abernathy says, but such a plan is unattainable from the current administration and Congress. Rolf and Hanauer contend that portable benefits stand a better chance of gaining traction at the local and state levels. They argue the idea will eventually percolate upward to influence the national debate. Smaller-scale pilot programs are underway as well, with Department of Labor funding and grants from Google.org, the search giant’s philanthropic arm. In the U.S. Congress, Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) has introduced a bill that would make $20 million in grants available to groups that would create a portable benefits pilot program.

Among the first to benefit from such programs are nannies and house cleaners, who know something about precarious work, says Palak Shah, director of the National Domestic Workers Association’s Fair Care Lab. With a $1.5 million assist from Google.org and a smaller Department of Labor grant, UX designers and other tech types have built MyAlia.org, an online platform that allows multiple employers to contribute $5 per weekly house cleaning job to a single worker. Cleaners begin earning sick time immediately, and they can add other benefits like life, accident and disability insurance. (MyAlia is still being tested, so Shah hasn’t yet released data on the platform or its users.)

“You could say domestic workers are the original gig workers,” Shah says. “We can be seen as the advance team for [a new] labor movement.”

Fifty-eight-year-old Norma – she doesn’t want to use her last name — is one of them. Originally from Peru, she’s been a nanny for 17 years. She started her current job in a beach community south of Los Angeles nine years ago, before one of the two kids she cares for was born. She says she loves the children and takes pride in her work. She also knows her rights and isn’t afraid to speak up. Still, she doesn’t think she can convince the couple who employs her to pay for benefits. She earns just $12 an hour and hasn’t even been able to persuade her bosses to comply with California law, which requires overtime for domestic workers. “They’re good people,” she says. “But they’re tight with a buck.”

For now, Norma doesn’t see her employers agreeing to spend more money on her. “There’s a lot of competition. Someone is always willing to work for $10 an hour.” And, at the more prosperous end of the economy, TV director Sami Abdou expresses the same sentiment. He says his bosses have even stopped handing out swag and throwing wrap parties.

The Roosevelt Institute’s Nell Abernathy is optimistic, however.

“All those experiments need to happen and all will get us to a place of innovation that points the way forward,” she says. “The endgame needs to be widespread safety.”


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California Game Changers

California Game Changers: Fixing Proposition 13’s Legacy

Co-published by International Business Times
Proposition 13’s backers have fended off legal challenges and watched as many efforts to amend it in Sacramento fizzled. What they haven’t faced is a sustained ground campaign, but that will soon change.

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Gabriel Thompson

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“People voted for Prop. 13 to keep people in their homes. It wasn’t supposed to be a windfall for large commercial property owners.”


Co-published by International Business Times

 From the second floor of a boxy office complex in Los Angeles’ Koreatown, Kris Vosburgh spends his days monitoring potential threats to Proposition 13, the landmark ballot initiative that slashed property taxes in California and fueled a nationwide tax revolt. This has been his mission for nearly 30 years, and if he sounds confident over the phone, it’s a confidence he has earned. So far, he’s racked up many victories and not a single defeat.

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Vosburgh is the head of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, named after the anti-tax crusader and politician who spearheaded Prop. 13. Jarvis died in 1986, but Vosburgh’s organization is determined to protect his political and economic legacy. The measure, which passed in 1978, capped property taxes in California at one percent and based those taxes on the value of the property in the year it was purchased, instead of its current market value.

The results have been dramatic. In the first year after implementation, property taxes—which fund the bulk of most local government services, such as schools—dropped 57 percent. Adjusted for inflation, that represented a cut of nearly $10 billion, and a gift to the state’s wealthiest residents. According to the California Legislative Analyst’s Office, most of the tax relief goes to residents who earn more than $120,000 a year. (In 2003, Warren Buffett noted that taxes on his $4 million mansion in Laguna Beach had increased just $23, thanks to Prop. 13, while jumping nearly $2,000 on his $500,000 house in Omaha.) Meanwhile, the huge budget shortfalls caused by Prop. 13 have led to dramatic increases in sales and utility taxes, which hit the poor the hardest.

Thus far, Vosburgh has helped to fend off a slew of legal challenges—taking one appeal all the way to the Supreme Court, which the association won 8 to 1—and watched as repeated efforts to amend Prop. 13 in Sacramento have fizzled.

Research shows that California would receive between $8.2 to $10.2 billion in additional revenue if Prop. 13 were amended.

What the HJTA hasn’t yet faced is a sustained ground campaign, but that will soon change. This spring, a coalition called Make It Fair—which includes powerhouse unions like the California Teachers Association (CTA) and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), along with a host of community organizations—began to knock on doors and circulate an online petition calling for Prop. 13 to be amended. They identified 100,000 supporters and are currently rolling out a month-long series of town halls with elected officials in the liberal strongholds of Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area, but also in San Diego, Bakersfield and the Inland Empire. The effort could turn into a ballot initiative as early as next year. (Disclosure: This website receives funding from CTA and SEIU.)

Ben Grieff, the campaign director for Evolve California, a statewide organizing group that is a member of Make It Fair, acknowledges that Vosburgh is right about one claim: If Prop. 13 is thought of simply as providing tax relief for homeowners, it can’t be defeated. Before Prop. 13, homeowners paid property taxes based on the current market value of their homes. If real estate prices skyrocketed—a not-infrequent occurrence in California—so did the taxes owed by homeowners, which could pose a serious hardship for elderly residents or others living on fixed incomes.

That talking point propelled Prop. 13 to victory, but Prop. 13 did a whole lot more.

What many people don’t know is that Prop. 13 also provides huge tax breaks to corporations. That’s because the strict limits on property taxes also apply to commercial properties. An elderly homeowner benefits from Prop. 13, but so does the Walt Disney Corporation. “People voted for Prop. 13 to keep people in their homes,” says Grieff. “It wasn’t supposed to be a windfall for large commercial property owners.” The Make it Fair coalition hopes to amend the measure to exclude commercial properties, so that they are taxed based on their current market value.

This small change would open up a massive new funding stream for the state of California. In a 2015 report, economists at the University of Southern California’s Program for Environmental and Regional Equity (PERE) estimated California would receive between $8.2 to $10.2 billion in additional revenue if commercial and industrial property owners were taxed based on the current market value of their holdings. Jennifer Ito, PERE’s research director and a coauthor of the study, is currently updating the report with data through 2016. From what she’s seen thus far, she expects to revise the revenue estimates upwards.

Prop. 13 may be the third rail of California politics, but the past year has proven the rules of politics can change, and quickly.

The wealthiest corporations reap the vast majority of the benefits from Prop. 13’s commercial tax loophole, as they have owned their properties for the longest period and often engage in complicated transactions to obscure changes in ownership, which would otherwise trigger a reassessment of the property’s value. According to the Make It Fair coalition, property owners or investors who hold more than $1 million in real estate account for 90 percent of the savings generated by the loophole. The additional $8.2 to $10.2 billion or so could go a long ways toward funding the state’s education and infrastructure needs, and perhaps provide some tax relief for poor and working-class Californians.

Ito considers the current effort to amend Prop. 13 as a natural outgrowth of the many years that local groups spent organizing in opposition to specific budget cuts. Instead of fighting over local programs, she says, they have realized that “more can be done if we look at the root cause of the problem, and they have shifted to look at California’s tax policy.”

Once you do that, Ito contends, ignoring the inequities of Prop. 13 is simply not possible. In 2012, voters passed Proposition 30, which raised taxes on high earners to temporarily fix a budget shortfall. Last year, with Prop 30 set to expire, voters passed Prop 55, which maintained the income tax hike for California’s highest earners. It, too, has an expiration date — 2030. But a Prop. 13 amendment would be a permanent funding stream.

“It’s been an issue that no politician wants to touch,” Ito tells me. “Until recently.”

Kris Vosburgh doesn’t sound particularly worried about the public sector unions and “far left Occupy Wall Street types” he claims have always sought to chip away at Prop. 13. “We estimate that if it were on the ballot today, we’d get more votes than we did before,” Vosburgh says. (In 1978, nearly 63 percent voted in favor of Prop. 13.) In focus groups, he says, his group finds that 90 percent of Republicans support the measure, along with 50 percent of Democrats. “No one wants to buy a home and then be taxed out of that home.”

Grieff knows that the campaign faces an uphill battle. If it successfully gathers the more than 500,000 signatures needed to place the amendment on the ballot for 2018, the opposition will be fierce. “They are going to spend tens of millions of dollars to keep this special deal that they have here in California,” he says. And he’s certainly aware of the cliché about Prop. 13: That it’s the third rail of California politics, and best not to touch. But he argues that the past year has proven the rules of politics can change, and quickly.

“We’re out there talking to people about this $9 billion dollar loophole, and they get it,” he says. “They already have a sense that corporations aren’t paying their fair share. The pundits aren’t out talking to people. They’re talking to themselves in Washington DC or Sacramento. People are ready for this, and I don’t think anyone can say that it can’t happen.”


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California Game Changers

California Game Changers: Making College Free Again

Co-published by International Business Times
Since 2004, California’s public university students have collectively racked up student debt in excess of $12 billion. There was a time when tuition-free college was the norm in California.

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Bill Raden

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For an increasing number of education and political leaders, bringing debt-free higher education back to California is long overdue.


Co-published by International Business Times

When Bernie Sanders, and then Hillary Clinton, made debt-free higher education a byword of the 2016 presidential race, University of California graduates like retired Los Angeles anesthesiologist Steve Auer unexpectedly found themselves the poster children for a time when free college tuition was the norm in California, rather than the radical proposition it seems today.

“Education was nearly free,” the 75-year-old Auer recalls in a phone interview with Capital & Main. “Tuition, of course, was nominal, was just almost nothing. That was the reality of that magical period that I was fortunate enough to grow up under and get my education.”

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In the 1960s, the state picked up the tuition for residents attending California’s public universities and colleges. Auer was merely charged, according to the 1963-64 UC Berkeley catalogue, $75 per semester for “services other than teaching facilities.” But even that “incidental fee” (roughly $600 in 2017 dollars) didn’t derail his education when the then-21-year-old suddenly left home after a falling out with his “Eastern European control freak” immigrant father.

“I rented a room in a house that four other guys were already renting,” he remembers. “I had a couple of part-time jobs. I basically scraped by. But it was adequate to get through college with those. No borrowed money at all.”

Today a year at a UC, including living expenses, costs $34,000. At a state university

the price tag is $25,060.

Graduating with a degree in chemistry, Auer went on to get a tuition-free medical degree from UC San Francisco and, on receiving his medical license, immediately entered the economy by buying a home, raising a family and enjoying a level of prosperity that was then still synonymous with the California Dream.

But Golden State tuitions have skyrocketed since former Republican Governor George Deukmejian officially pulled the plug on free tuition in 1984. The incidental fees of Auer’s generation have morphed into today’s $34,000 sticker price (including living expenses) for a year at a UC. At a California State University (CSU), the price tag is $25,060. To help pay for it, California families will resort to a patchwork of Cal Grants, federal Pell Grants, university grants and Middle Class Scholarships. Borrowing will fill in the gaps.

For an increasing number of education and political leaders, bringing debt-free higher education back to California is long overdue. In 2015 alone, over half of UC and CSU seniors graduated with a staggering $1.3 billion debt load. Since 2004, California’s public university students have collectively racked up student debt in excess of $12 billion. That liability has been a catastrophe, according to UC San Francisco medical professor Stanton Glantz, president of the Council of University of California Faculty Associations.

“Even if you take a fairly conservative approach, it’s had huge negative effects on the California economy,” he explains in a phone interview, “because people who graduate with this ridiculous amount of debt have to delay starting families, starting businesses, and it just becomes a weight on the whole economy. … The same people, if you look at the state as a whole, are going to end up paying for higher ed. It’s just, [with free tuition] you give it to everybody, and then the society recoups the costs over the long run by creating more wealth, [rather than] what we’re doing now, which is where you take the people who are actually getting educated and saddle them with [the cost].”

For the first time in 30 years, however, the higher education tide may finally be turning in Californians’ favor. In March, Assemblymember Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento) unveiled an ambitious proposal for a $1.6 billion-per-year “Degrees Not Debt” scholarship program, aimed at eliminating the need for nearly 400,000 UC and CSU students to take out loans to finance their living expenses. The plan also included a proposal by Assemblyman Miguel Santiago (D-Los Angeles) to make the first year of California Community Colleges (CCC) tuition-free for all full-time students.

Ultimately, McCarty’s measure failed to make it into the July budget. A separate bill by Assemblymember Susan Talamantes Eggman (D-Stockton) that would have funded free tuition for community colleges, CSU and UC for California residents died in committee. Santiago’s free-first-year community college bill, Assembly Bill 19, eventually made it to the the governor’s desk, though whether Jerry Brown will sign it is still unclear. For their part, McCarty and Eggman have vowed to press on. “We were able to get tuition-free higher education on California’s agenda, and push the threshold of what we, as policymakers, think is possible,” Eggman said by email. “But there is more work to be done to convince policy makers that this is a critical investment in our future that we must make — and to foster the political will to get it done.”

The argument that a university degree benefits both the graduate and society has been made repeatedly over the years. For the college graduate, it means significantly increased lifetime earnings; for the state, increased tax revenue and reduced costs for social welfare programs and incarceration. A 2012 study by UC Berkeley’s Institute for the Study of Societal Issues estimated that ongoing returns to the state from UC and CSU graduates averaged $12 billion annually, “well above the general fund expenditures for the UC, CSU and CCC systems combined.”

College tuitions are “a gigantic problem that is eminently solvable

if the political will is there to do it.”

Since 2005, however, the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) has been sounding the alarm that the state isn’t producing enough bachelor’s degrees to drive its own economy. The PPIC routinely points out that California’s degree gap threatens economic growth and is a significant factor in the income inequality that has already arrested economic mobility in the U.S.

Far more dire is the Frankenstein threat posed by what is being called “the Fourth Industrial Revolution.” Last year, a World Economic Forum report estimated that 47 percent of all U.S. jobs are at risk from automation and artificial intelligence. A robotized workforce, economists predict, will hollow out an already battered middle class, and its expected collateral damage has ironically led even Silicon Valley cyber-billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk to warn that “some kind of universal basic income is going to be necessary.” The evidence suggests that those without any postsecondary education will be among the hardest hit.

How California went from tuition-free to tuitions that can now cost middle-income families thousands of dollars over that of Harvard College or Yale can be chalked up to Arnold Schwarzenegger and the state’s failed experiment in privatization.

“He came in as a straight, dyed-in-the-blue, or red I guess, free market, Milton Friedman conservative,” quips Glantz, who chaired the budget committee for the UC system at that time. “His view was that going to college was a good [personal] investment. If you went to college, you made more money. And if [people] aren’t willing to spend the money or borrow the money, then that means they don’t want to get educated that much, so why are we distorting things by having the taxpayer subsidize it?”

Although Sacramento’s attempts to fix the cost of higher education are over for this legislative session, Glantz thinks the momentum will carry over into next year’s gubernatorial race. To that end, he has made sure that all of the 2018 Democratic gubernatorial candidates have a copy of The $48 Fix, the debt-free college blueprint authored by the Reclaim CA Higher Education coalition, his working group of state university faculty and labor leaders. With a funding mechanism hinted at in its title, the plan lays out a path not only for debt-free college, but for restoring California’s three-tier system of colleges and universities as both the public good and the robust economic engine envisioned by the state’s landmark 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education.

“We basically show that you could restore quality and fund all the people who’ve been shoved out of the system and [restore] access if you were to do an income tax surcharge [of] $4 a month for median households [earning $64,500 annually],” he explains. “This is a gigantic problem that is eminently solvable if the political will is there to do it.”

“I think,” adds Glantz, “if you went to the typical family and said, ‘Would you be willing to pay a little bit more in taxes so that you wouldn’t have to worry about this for your kids and your grandchildren and your friends, and the kids you don’t have yet, and all that?’ — most people would say, ‘Yes.’”

[Note: A previous version of this article erroneously stated that AB 19 had failed to make it into the budget.]


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California Game Changers

California Game Changers: Can We Ban Fracking?

Co-published by International Business Times
Environmentalists and community activists have long lobbied for a statewide ban on fracking. “Given what we know about fracking’s dangers, [banning it] is just a no-brainer,” says one advocate.

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Judith Lewis Mernit

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Oil drilling in Los Angeles has been associated with asthma, heart disease and low-birthweight babies. Close to 300,000 people in Kern County reside within a mile of an oil well.


Co-published by International Business Times

If you were to parachute into Kern County about 40 miles west of Bakersfield, you might doubt California’s status as a national leader on climate. Pumpjacks spread out in every direction across a hellscape scraped bare of anything green. Scattered at irregular intervals, spires of latticed steel reach up more than a hundred feet, secured with guy-wires: evidence of hydraulic fracturing, a practice sufficiently infamous that its household nickname, fracking, invokes images of tap water so toxic you can light it on fire.

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Fracked oil wells are everywhere on this southeastern extreme of the San Joaquin Valley, hard by the leeward side of the San Andreas fault. Big oil companies such as Chevron and Mobil began hydraulically fracturing wells here in earnest during the late 1970s, after the OPEC embargo made oil expensive and scarce. Drillers learned that by injecting a powerful slurry of chemical-laden water and sand into sedimentary rock, they could blast under played-out conventional wells and squeeze out oil left trapped in fissures, or could access reserves that traditional drilling otherwise couldn’t. (They could also inject acid into a certain kind of petroleum-bearing rock to dissolve it, another “well stimulation” method less common, but just as controversial, as hydraulic fracturing.)

The view from Bakersfield’s bluffs is breathtaking and dissonant: The lush green  Kern River Valley; black pumpjacks, planted over scoured and parched brown earth, extend toward the horizon.

Environmentalists and community activists have long lobbied for a statewide ban on fracking, arguing that the unique chemical cocktails that make up fracking fluids present novel risks to human health. “Given what we know about fracking’s dangers, [banning it] is just a no-brainer,” says Hollin Kretzmann, a staff attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. But up until two year ago, no one but the drillers even knew where fracking was happening.

“We didn’t know how much water was being used, which chemicals they were using, even where it was happening — it was a big data vacuum,” says Briana Mordick, senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. That changed with the 2013 passage of Senate Bill 4, then-State Senator Fran Pavley’s well stimulation disclosure act. Now, you can look up fracked wells on a map maintained by the California Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources.

You can also look up what each company puts in its fracking fluids, which may or may not be meaningful. “Two-thirds of the chemicals used in fracking don’t have any public health profiles,” Mordick says. No one has yet done the studies to prove what dangers the chemicals pose. We might know that a common component of acidizing, hydrofluoric acid, eats away at your bones (one drop on your finger and you cut it off or die). But we don’t know whether any chemical escaped into the environment and directly made anyone sick.

Other industries have more established connections to Kern County’s elevated rates of lung disorders and heart disease. Poverty takes a toll on health, as do pesticides from farm fields and exhaust from two major freeways and a railroad. “We are the heart of California,” says Juan Flores, a 31-year-old community organizer with the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment, in Delano, a mostly agricultural city about half an hour north of Bakersfield. “If something gets moved from north to south in this state, it goes through here.”

Flores figures that each of the county’s principal industries — oil, agriculture and goods movement — account for about a third of the valley’s pollution. Fracking is responsible for only about a fifth of oil’s contribution. Still, he believes a fracking ban is worth fighting for, if only because fracturing encourages wells to be drilled where there were none before. And even if fracking’s precise environmental damage remains somewhat of a mystery in California, the destruction wrought by oil and gas operations does not.

A recent study in rural Colorado found that children diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia were three to four times more likely to live in close proximity to an oil or gas site. Oil drilling in Los Angeles, which happens in dense, urban neighborhoods, has been associated with asthma, heart disease and low-birthweight babies, primarily because it exacerbates air pollution. Close to 300,000 people in Kern County reside within a mile of an oil well, the majority of them Latino and living near or below the federal poverty line. Hydraulic fracturing makes more oil possible.

“To kill the environment where people live –that is the worst thing you can do.”

Flores is a tall, imposing presence, with a low forehead that gives way to thick, black hair. He grew up in Mexicali and came to the U.S. as a teenager with his parents, both of whom are farmworkers. Despite spending four years as an anti-fracking activist, he seems relentlessly cheerful, even when discussing painful subjects. I ask whether he believes what oil company representatives have told me, all speaking on background: That the oil industry in California is subject to the strictest environmental rules in the nation. “The good part is that I do believe that,” he says. “The bad part is, if we’re dying in California, with the best of the best — I can only imagine the suffering they’re going through in Kansas, in North Dakota, in Texas. To kill the environment where people live — that is the worst thing you can do.”

Fracking activity in the San Joaquin Valley slowed temporarily after SB 4’s rules took effect in 2015, says Kyle Ferrar, who monitors the Western U.S. for the FracTracker Alliance, a nonprofit that collects data and other information on fracking in the U.S. Besides disclosure, the law requires strict groundwater monitoring unless drillers obtain exemptions. “When those rules were passed, they were pretty strict, and rightfully so,” Ferrar says. Now permitting has picked up again, and thousands more wells have been stimulated since 2016.

Flores worries the upward trend could continue, especially as older fields age and if oil prices rise. When we spoke, the Bureau of Land Management had signaled an intent to open up more of California’s public lands to oil and gas exploration. A few weeks later, a federal judge struck down that plan, on the grounds that the agency failed to fully investigate the dangers of hydraulic fracturing, which could affect as many as a quarter of the new wells.

The administration still has options to pursue; the BLM could well come back with a revised plan sometime in the next four years and prevail. Flores hopes that before that happens, the California legislature will impose a statewide ban, despite the extent to which oil irrigates California politics. (Oil and gas interests donated $2.8 million to campaigns in the November 8, 2016 election. Close to 48 percent of those contributions went to Democrats.) In the meantime, he says, “we’re expecting and hoping that [local lawmakers] will upgrade their county and city oil and gas ordinances, focusing on the health of the community,” he says. “[Then] the oil industry would not be so attracted to [these] communities to extract oil.”

Last year Monterey County voters did just that, bucking oil’s well-funded opposition to approve Measure Z, prohibiting fracking and other well-stimulation methods within the county’s boundaries. And unlike some other California counties that have passed similar laws — Santa Cruz, San Benito, Alameda, Butte and Mendocino — Monterey County actually has oil: More than 1,000 wells operate on four fields near San Ardo, in the Salinas Valley. Chevron and Aera Energy almost immediately filed suits to stop the law from being implemented, and public hearings over exemptions and timelines have been contentious.

Lawsuit or not, Hollin Kretzmann contends that Measure Z is a model for other jurisdictions that want to take action at a local level. “New York’s fracking ban started with a couple of rural townships,” he points out. “It spread to a dozen townships. The governor was under enormous pressure from the public, and facing the science was forced to [sign] a statewide ban.”

The oil companies, they’re going to be left behind,” Juan Flores says, standing in the shade of an abundant valley oak in Panorama Park, an expanse of manicured grass on Bakersfield’s bluffs. The view from the bluffs is both breathtaking and dissonant: Looking down, you can see the lush green of the Kern River Valley; along the horizon a field of black pumpjacks, planted over scoured and parched brown earth, extends into apparent infinity. Flores traces with his finger the route of a canal that carries water left over from Chevron’s Kern River operations. Eventually, that water mixes with fresh water in an irrigation canal. During the drought of the last six years, farmers used it to keep their nut groves green. “Think about that,” Flores says, “when you eat your almonds and pistachios.”

It’s clear that Bakersfield’s boosters still take pride in this landscape. You don’t name bluffs, a park and a scenic drive “Panorama” because you’re ashamed of the view. But Flores notes that some of the field’s pumps have gone idle. Since oil prices crashed from their well-over $100-a-barrel highs to under $50 a barrel in 2015, Kern County’s economy has struggled.

“I notice the anger, the frustration of the oil workers who have lost jobs,” he says. “I know it makes it worse for them seeing me in documentaries saying, ‘Yeah, I really want fracking to stop.’ But what I want them to notice is that oil is not everything. They can jump on this train of renewable energy and be the leaders of it.”

He imagines another future for Bakersfield’s windy, sun-baked vista: Hundreds and thousands of solar panels and wind turbines, generating clean power for California’s grid. “Even more than that, I can see community members owning that energy, being part of it,” he says. “We’ll be so much better off with energy that won’t hurt us.”


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California Game Changers: Moving the Needle on Drug Reform

Co-published by International Business Times

Since 2000 the number of California’s drug-induced deaths has doubled. These aren’t suicides.

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Judith Lewis Mernit

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“Harm reduction” isn’t legalization or decriminalization. It is simply a way of keeping people alive until they give up drugs.

Or even if they don’t.


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Short of launching a murderous drug war on the order of the one raging in Rodrigo Duterte’s Philippines, it’s almost impossible to stop people from taking illicit drugs. Incarceration hasn’t worked, nor has the deterrence of potential arrest. Addiction and physical dependence, whether on methamphetamine or oxycodone or heroin, is a disease, and it can’t be prosecuted away.

It is, however, possible to reduce the number of people drugs kill. Harm reduction — a category of drug policy strategies that include pill testing, needle exchanges and arming community members with overdose-reversal kits — has been shown to achieve dramatic reductions in the spread of drug-associated disease and death. In the words of author and Georgetown University law professor Paul Butler, “Harm reduction recognizes that there has never, in the history of the world, been a drug-free society.” It acknowledges that “we benefit more from making drugs safer than from pretending that we can eradicate them.”

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Many harm-reduction programs are already legal in California. You can buy testing kits, for example, and needle-exchange programs qualify for federal funding. But one of the most effective strategies, practiced in Europe and Canada, remains implicitly against state and federal law, despite evidence from other countries that it works: dedicated facilities where people can come to use their drugs in a safe, hygienic environment in the company of trained medical staff. “They increase the amount of people who get into treatment, they increase the amount of people who stay clean, decrease the amount of people who are contracting HIV, Hepatitis, and those kinds of things,” Assemblymember Susan Eggman (D-Stockton) told a press conference on International Overdose Awareness Day, August 31.

Eggman has been at the forefront of a legislative effort to establish legal,  supervised injection facilities in California. Last year, she introduced a bill that would authorize supervised consumption facilities statewide; the bill died in committee without a single vote. This year, she refined her proposal to target only the most embattled counties. California Assembly Bill 186 would have set up pilot programs in Los Angeles, Humboldt, San Francisco, Mendocino, San Joaquin and Alameda counties where, in “a hygienic space supervised by health care professionals,” drug users could “consume preobtained drugs.” The program would expire in 2022, at which point policy makers and law enforcement could assess its success or failure. Eggman’s bill cleared the Assembly and subsequent Senate committees. In a floor vote on September 12, enough Democrats joined Senate Republicans to defeat the bill by two votes.

“It would have effectively legalized the use of illegal, injectable narcotics in government-sanctioned drug dens,” said Senate Republican Leader Patricia Bates, (R-Laguna Niguel), in a statement, elaborating that those “drug dens” would “prolong addiction, embolden drug dealers and encourage more crime.”

Assemblywoman Laura Friedman (D-Glendale), one of the bill’s co-sponsors, disputes that analysis. “Nobody wakes up in the morning and says that they’re going to start using drugs because there’s a safe injection site in their community,” she said at the August 31 event.

Research and data say that Friedman is right. Supervised injection facilities are “the formalization of harm reduction,” said Ryan McNeil, a researcher at the University of British Columbia, speaking at a Drug Policy Alliance seminar on September 24. After a 2016 spike in overdose deaths, Vancouver has just begun to see a decline in drug deaths, possibly due to more aggressive efforts to support safer drug use. Insite, a supervised Vancouver injection facility, is a one-stop harm-reduction center for drug users, a place where not only will someone intervene in case of an overdose, but effectively shelter them from the chaos and violence of the street.

The facilities are also a benefit to the community at large. They mean “fewer 911 calls,” according to Alex Kral of the nonprofit research institute RTI International. Kral, who has studied the one secret facility that exists in the U.S., estimates that San Francisco would save $3.5 million every year from the reductions in HIV and Hepatitis C transmissions a safe injection facility would secure.

They might also function as a bridge to treatment; counseling services are usually available in the supervised setting, too. But that’s not the point. “Safe injection sites aren’t about reducing drug use,” says Beau Kilmer, co-director of the Drug Policy Research Center at the RAND Corporation. “They’re about reducing death.” Still, in 2015, Insite referred 464 people into its adjoining treatment facility; 262 of them successfully completed the program.

Only one clandestine safe injection facility exists, illegally, in the U.S.; its staff communicates only with researchers who want to study the facility’s outcomes. Overdoses have happened at the site, as they have at Insite. But all of them have been reversed.

“In these facilities around the world not one person has died of an overdose,” Eggman said. “We should stop treating addiction as a criminal issue.”

California, perhaps more than any other state, has made great strides in that direction. In 2000, voters passed Proposition 36, which diverted certain drug users from prison into treatment; 14 years later, with Proposition 47, the state de-felonized nearly all drugs, from heroin to cocaine. As of this year, of course, marijuana is legal. But law-enforcement interest groups, which would have needed to stand down around safe injection sites, have been adamant in their opposition to them, and became a force of defeat.

Last year more than 4,000 Californians died from drug overdoses  — which are now a more common cause of death than car accidents, pedestrian traffic deaths and drownings.

Senator Bates recommended that the Senate focus on drug treatment instead of enabling drug users. But sufficient drug-treatment facilities don’t always exist where drug users need them. Certain rural communities where drugs, especially heroin, are prevalent have been declared “drug treatment deserts” for their lack of treatment facilities.

Peter Reuter, a prominent researcher and public policy professor at the University of Maryland, worries that situation will only worsen should Republicans in Congress succeed in repealing the Affordable Care Act. The federal health-care program “has been critical for drug policy in that drug treatment has been available for populations with high rates of drug dependence,” he said. Stripping states of Medicaid funding for rehabilitation “will have real consequences.”

One of them is that more people will die.

Last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 4,000 people in California died from overdosing on drugs. Drug overdoses are now a more common cause of death than car accidents, pedestrian traffic deaths and drownings. Roughly half of the overdose deaths are from opioids – nearly a fourth of which are from heroin. For every overdose fatality in California, there are two emergency-room visits and two hospital stays, and an unknown number of near-misses. Since 2000 the number of California’s drug-induced deaths has doubled.

These aren’t suicides. Accidental overdoses happen when a drug user consumes more drug than she realizes, or uses a drug cut with another, often cheaper, substance. Some people unknowingly inject heroin or methamphetamine laced with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 100 times more powerful than morphine. Others die after detoxing — often after a stint in prison— not realizing that they can no longer tolerate the same dose that got them high before they went in. Others simply take too much, seeking a better high, the energy to dance all night, or simply relief from chronic pain.

And even with adequate treatment options, people aren’t always willing to quit drugs — which is what should make harm reduction a crucial drug policy pillar. Harm reduction isn’t legalization, despite state Senator Bates’ objections. It does nothing to disrupt law enforcement efforts to curtail the sale and distribution of drugs. Nor is it decriminalization, which eliminates legal consequences for possession. It is simply a way of keeping people alive until they give up drugs. Or even if they don’t.

Assemblywoman Eggman won’t introduce another safe-injection facility bill in 2017, but she hasn’t given up the fight. She plans to re-introduce the bill in January.

Meanwhile, the science in support of safe-injection sites continues to accumulate. “[It’s] a new solution in the U.S.,” says Alex Kral. “But [it’s] scientifically proven around the world. We’re on solid ground here with a science-based solution.”


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California Game Changers

California Game Changers: Leveling the Field in Immigration Court

Co-published by International Business Times

More than 600,000 immigrants are battling deportation or fighting for asylum in American immigration courts — nearly 20 percent of them live in California. Fewer than 40 percent of these are represented by an attorney, including children as young as 3.

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Robin Urevich

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Illustration: Nicolás Zúñiga

Immigration law is often compared to the tax code in its complexity, but the government doesn’t provide attorneys for those who can’t afford them, as it does in criminal matters.


Co-published by International Business Times

 On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Cambodian refugee Chea Phov appeared before immigration judge Arlene Dorfman in downtown Los Angeles dressed in a crisp, white shirt and white jeans, and looking much older than his 40 years. He brought his sister and elderly mother to court for support, but he told Dorfman there was one person he couldn’t find: an attorney to represent him.

“I don’t understand how to fight my case. I barely passed high school,” Phov told Capital & Main. “I believe representing myself is unjust.”

Phov is not alone.

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More than 600,000 immigrants are currently battling deportation or fighting for asylum in immigration courts across the country. Nearly 20 percent of them live in California.

Operated by the U.S. Department of Justice, the courts decide whether those who are accused of violating immigration law should be permitted to remain in the country.

Some of those arguing their cases are survivors of domestic violence or torture in their homelands. Others are legal residents with longstanding family and community ties to the United States who have committed crimes, some of them minor and decades in the past. These cases carry far-reaching consequences. Deportation can mean permanent separation from a spouse, children and community, or, if repatriated to their country of origin, persecution, torture or worse.

A 2010 report by the American Bar Association noted that the lack of legal representation was found to be the single biggest determinant of success in immigration court asylum cases. Immigration law is often compared to the tax code in its complexity, but the government doesn’t provide attorneys for those who can’t afford them, as it does in criminal matters. Fewer than 40 percent of those arguing cases in immigration court are represented by an attorney, including children as young as 3, as well as men and women who can’t read or write, or who don’t speak English.

Phov argues that he faces deportation because of a big mistake, but said he can’t make his case for a second chance without legal help. He fled Cambodia with his family, came to the United States when he was 8 and settled in Long Beach. In his early 20s, he said, he drove a getaway car in a robbery and did 13 years in state prison. He denied being one of the bad hombres that politicians from Donald Trump to Jerry Brown contend should be shipped back to where they came from. Phov said he’s been crime-free for four and a half years and has rededicated his life to his Buddhist faith. He said his entire family is in the U.S.; a return to Cambodia would cut him off from everyone he knows, and damage his fragile mental health. He claims to suffer from depression, racing thoughts and bipolar disorder, but has benefited from medication.

“If they send me to Cambodia, I won’t get my meds.”

Seven years ago, the American Bar Association recommended the federal government establish a sort of public defender system of appointed attorneys for indigent immigrants like Chea Phov. However, Washington has taken no action.

Now, in the face of federal inaction, calls for so-called universal representation in immigration court have grown louder. Last year, the California Coalition for Universal Representation (CCUR), which is made up of nearly two dozen civil rights and immigrant rights groups, called for the state to establish its own free legal representation system for immigration defenses.

The odds are overwhelming against those who are sitting in immigration detention

without lawyers.

“Our society no longer questions the moral and constitutional duty to provide attorneys for individuals in criminal proceedings,” the group’s 2016 report, “California’s Due Process Crisis,” noted. “Given the similarity both in form and in severity of the potential consequences, the moral imperative here is equally clear.”

It’s also an issue for California’s social services system, the report claims. Deportations take parents away from their homes, which means more kids in foster care, greater mental health and medical needs, and housing and food insecurity for more families.

The coalition points to New York City, which in 2014 became the first in the country to offer free representation for all indigent residents, as well as for New Yorkers detained in neighboring New Jersey who face deportation. Meanwhile, this year California lawmakers have allocated $45 million to fund legal representation in immigration court, while the Trump administration’s deportation push has spurred Los Angeles, San Francisco, Atlanta, Chicago, Austin and Washington, DC to consider programs similar to New York City’s.

A study by the American Immigration Council last year further found that detained immigrants were twice as likely to win their cases if they had attorneys. Those who weren’t detained were five times more likely to prevail. Among children, the differences are even starker. Also in 2016, the National Immigrant Justice Center reported that 73 percent of those who have representation are allowed to stay in the U.S., while only 15 percent of unrepresented children are allowed to remain here.

“Immigration law is so difficult and so complex,” said Patricia Ortiz, program director at Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project in Los Angeles. “To expect someone to do it on their own is pretty ridiculous.”

Ortiz said it’s so hard for people to understand the system that some show up for her organization’s legal orientation meetings unaware that they’ve already been ordered deported.

To help people find counsel, the courts distribute lists of nonprofits like Esperanza, which is run by Catholic Charities. Some 20 such groups provide free and low-cost representation around the state, but demand for services far outstrips capacity, said Robert Foss, division attorney at the International Institute of Los Angeles, a Lincoln Heights nonprofit that helps immigrants settle into new lives in the United States.

“The intake is often overwhelming,” Foss said. “You do a legal triage, you find the most humanitarian or egregious cases. Our formula is cases that most need our help and maybe have a chance to win. It’s tricky and it means saying no to a lot of people.”

In Los Angeles and San Francisco, more than two-thirds of those in immigration proceedings are represented. But if you live in Atlanta or Kansas City, your chances of finding a lawyer are less than 50-50.

The odds are overwhelming against those who are sitting in immigration detention.

Detainees in Adelanto, the massive high desert lock-up near San Bernardino, California, have only a 13 percent chance of securing attorney representation, while those in San Diego fared only slightly better, with a 17 percent chance, the American Immigration Council study found.

At its core, the debate is about justice, with universal representation supporters and opponents at odds over just what is fair.

Using 2015 figures, the CCUR report argues the state of California could level the playing field with an outlay of $37 million to cover legal defense for the 7,400 Californians who were unrepresented in immigration court that year. The figures are likely larger this year, because of the record number of cases in the courts. The group’s report notes that the state could recoup its investment in the form of decreased foster care costs, lower mental and medical care expenses for traumatized families and millions spent by businesses to hire and train replacement workers for those lost to deportation.

However, the economic case for a federal universal representation program is even stronger. A 2014 study commissioned by the New York City Bar Association and conducted by John Montgomery, a former member of President Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisors, found that universal representation would cost about $208 million nationally, but the cost would be offset by a savings of about the same amount —$204 to $208 million—in detention and related costs.

At its core, however, the debate is about justice, with universal representation supporters and opponents at odds over just what is fair.

Take a person who steals a bag of chips, said Jeremy McKinney, an attorney and secretary of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, who practices in North Carolina. The man gets a free lawyer. However, McKinney noted, a person in deportation proceedings may risk return to a war-torn or authoritarian country where he could be killed. “There is something that is not just about that,” McKinney, said. “Maybe we need to look at extending those protections to people who face permanent exile from our country.”

But Chapman University law professor and constitutional law scholar John Eastman disagrees.

“If that’s the argument, why not provide mandatory taxpayer-funded representation in family court?” he said, noting that the stakes are high there, too, as they are in other areas of civil law.

“You open the door here and there’s all sorts of other claimants that are equally sympathetic. You pay for someone illegal – why not pay for me in my landlord-tenant dispute or my divorce?” Eastman said.

Still, Eastman said his objection is to making immigration defense a constitutional right, as it is in criminal cases. He said he wouldn’t necessarily oppose Congress appropriating funds for that purpose.

(Kenneth Gardner, a spokesman for the Executive Office for Immigration Review, a branch of the U.S. Department of Justice, which runs the courts, wrote in an email that his agency declines to comment on calls for universal representation.)

Still, a 2013 court victory shows that a system of free appointed counsel for those who can’t afford it can work in immigration court, said American Civil Liberties Union attorney Ahilan Arulanantham. Seven years ago, Arulanantham, who was named a MacArthur fellow last year, filed suit on behalf of José Antonio Franco-González and Guillermo Gomez-Sanchez; both men were stuck indefinitely in immigration detention because they couldn’t afford to hire attorneys, and judges had decided neither man could competently represent himself. The case won class action status and in 2013 a U.S. District Court judge ordered free legal counsel for some individuals with intellectual disabilities and severe mental health issues.

“The Franco injunction shows that it’s feasible to run a program of appointed legal representation for people facing deportations,” Arulanantham said.

The District Court ruling originally only applied to California, Arizona and Washington. But the government has voluntarily established a nationwide program, Arulanantham said.

“At bottom, it reflects the judgment that people with serious mental disorders can’t get a fair hearing without competent legal representation, which isn’t particularly shocking.”

Now the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is considering a request for rehearing in another of Arulanantham’s cases involving undocumented children between 3 and 17, in which, he argued, children are unsurprisingly outgunned in immigration court. They are generally unable to identify their rights to relief from deportation or do the legal research necessary to support their claims, much less argue against a trained government prosecutor in court. Arulanantham noted that while free legal services for immigrant children have expanded in recent years, some kids are still left to fend for themselves in court.

The effort to expand due process rights in immigration court is likely to continue moving slowly. Meanwhile local and state programs that help fund immigration defense don’t cover everyone who needs help. A large-scale federal program is all but impossible to imagine in the current presidential administration, said Avideh Moussavian of the National Immigration Law Center. But she added that the current patchwork of efforts could one day pave the way for a much larger reform.

“I think that like many things,” Moussavian said, “it often takes the cumulative effect of local measures to create the tipping point from an advocacy perspective for there to be federal action.”


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