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Curtain Raised on State Immigration Bills

Seth Sandronsky

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As comprehensive immigration reform stalls along party lines in Washington, D.C., state Democrats are taking action in Sacramento. Backed by an assortment of coalition partners, California’s blue lawmakers have authored 10 new immigration bills (four in the Senate and six in the Assembly) to better the lives of two million undocumented individuals — five percent of California’s population.

As a thunderstorm with hail and lightning soaked a drought-parched Sacramento, Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) and Assembly Speaker Toni G. Atkins (D-San Diego) announced the “Immigrants Shape California” reform measures. They would increase the consumer, civil, criminal, health-care and labor rights of undocumented households.

“We are doing the work of the federal Congress,” said de León during a late-morning news conference inside the state Capitol. “This is our reaction to their lack of action.”

“With these bills,” said Atkins, “California will show the practical, humane and forward-thinking leadership that can move the needle on a national discussion.” To this end, she and de León co-authored Senate Bill 674 to establish equal protection under the law for all immigrants who are criminal victims and to ensure that every local law enforcement agency facilitates the process of granting federal Victim of Crime Visas (U-Visa) when appropriate.

This is not the current statewide practice, de León said – describing, as an example, alleged beatings and rapes of undocumented youth and women that have occurred in Kern County.

A major bill in the California Democrats’ package is SB 4, introduced by Senator Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens), to open the state health-care exchange, Covered California, to all individuals who are income-qualified. SB 4 would improve the quality of life for Concepcion Calzada, whose 18-year-old daughter, Selena Ruby Castañon, is a U.S. citizen. Castañon, who lives in the Sierra foothill city of Porterville, is the primary caregiver to her infirm, wheelchair-bound mother, an undocumented immigrant who lacks health-care insurance

“My mom is unable to receive the proper treatment to minimize her pain,” Castañon told Capital & Main. California’s failure to provide Medi-Cal to uncovered individuals pushes the latter into the high-priced option of emergency-room care, Lara said.

How would California pay for this expansion of Medi-Cal under SB 4? Part of the answer, according to Lara, is that 30 percent of California’s undocumented individuals can afford to pay out of their own pockets for health insurance plans through the state exchange.

Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff (R-Diamond Bar) declined Capital & Main’s phone request for a comment on Lara’s claim. Instead, Huff’s office emailed Capital & Main this press statement:

Comprehensive immigration reform is important to California’s way of life, and California Republicans have repeatedly called for comprehensive immigration reform at the national level. The federal government’s failure to act has unfairly shifted the burden to the states and California is taking the brunt of it. We understand the burdens facing immigrants who want to go to work and raise their families in safe neighborhoods, and the rationale behind these bills is admirable. But without money from Congress and President Obama it will be very difficult and costly for California taxpayers to fund all of these bill proposals.

Lara is also the author of Senate Bill 10, which would open an Office of New Americans inside the governor’s office. This office for recent undocumented arrivals would provide information and services from the private and public sectors to protect them from maltreatment.

Hong Mei Pang (Photo by Seth Sandronsky)

SB 10 would have enhanced the lives of Singapore-born Hong Mei Pang and her family. Now an Oakland resident, the 25-year-old told Capital & Main how her father’s U.S. employer promised him a work visa, but failed to deliver it. “We didn’t know how to get help, didn’t get it, and lived in the shadows,” said Pang, who in 2011 earned an urban studies degree from the New School in New York City, and is now a community organizer with the Asian Students Promoting Immigrant Rights through Education.

Other Immigration Bills:

  • AB 622 would amend the state Labor Code to better protect immigrant employees from employers who would misuse the federal E-Verify system for commercial gain at the expense of vulnerable workers. Author: Roger Hernández (D-West Covina).
  • AB 60 is designed to oversee businesses that could defraud individuals seeking immigration services given the absence of their legal rights as American citizens. It would amend the state Business and Professions Code to increase the accountability and transparency of immigration attorneys and consultants. Author: Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego).
  • AB 899 increases state protection of undocumented and unaccompanied minor immigrants. This bill would establish a special visa to expand their humanitarian rights. AB 900 would further improve legal protections of immigrant youth without documents. Author: Marc Levine (D-San Rafael).
  • SB 600 would amend the state Civil Code, extending enforcement of the Unruh Civil Rights Act “to persons regardless of citizenship, primary language, or immigration status.” About 1.9 million workers are undocumented immigrants, or 10 percent of California’s 19-million-employee labor force. Author: Richard Pan (D-Sacramento).

If making new laws to help all immigrants was easy, it would have happened already, said Speaker Atkins. “We have had bipartisan support with previous immigration legislation that became state law,” she said. “We are optimistic of repeating that process.”

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