Mixed thoughts on bills regarding immigrants

09/17/2013 4:53 PM

09/17/2013 4:55 PM

By picking the right ones among a bushel of bills sent to him by the Legislature, Gov. Jerry Brown can make California’s treatment of illegal immigrants more sane and humane – and in so doing, also make the state safer for everyone.

The highest-profile measure on his desk would allow illegal immigrants to get driver’s licenses. After a decade of failed attempts, as many as 1.4 million new licenses could be issued.

Brown should sign Assembly Bill 60, and has indicated he will. “This bill will enable millions of people to get to work safely and legally,” the governor said in a statement.

It’s not just the safety of immigrants at stake; this bill would make highways less hazardous for all Californians. Illegal immigrants are driving, regardless. Without a license, they are not being tested for knowledge of traffic laws. Studies suggest they are more likely to be involved in fatal crashes. And as several top law enforcement officials point out, unlicensed immigrants cannot get auto insurance, leading to more hit-and-run wrecks.

A good number of law enforcement officials are also rightly backing another bill, which would shield some people in the country illegally but without serious criminal records from immigration holds and deportations.

Brown vetoed a bill on the same issue last year, expressing fears it would block federal immigration authorities from removing dangerous criminals.

This version, Assembly Bill 4, has been narrowed to address those concerns and deserves Brown’s support. Known as the Trust Act, it would allow police to hold illegal immigrants convicted of serious crimes, including some misdemeanors; those charged with a serious or violent felony when probable cause has been found; and registered sex offenders or arsonists. But it would prohibit police from holding those arrested for minor crimes – illegal street vending or traffic violations, for instance – solely for immigration purposes.

That has been happening far too often under the federal Secure Communities program. Of nearly 94,000 deportations from California from October 2008 to February 2013, 68 percent were low-level offenders or people who had never been convicted of any crime. Forcing police to be immigration agents has severely damaged trust and cooperation among immigrants. That has made all communities less safe.

Not every bill to expand immigrants’ rights, however, would be good for California.

Brown should veto AB 1401, which would allow permanent residents to serve on juries. This measure goes too far in granting a right of citizenship to people who aren’t citizens.

Serving on a jury – having power over someone’s liberty – ought to be reserved for citizens, just like voting or holding elected office. If signed into law, the bill has the potential of discouraging “green card” holders from completing the path to citizenship.

As we’ve noted, some Republicans, including Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres, have recognized the demographic changes and supported some of these bills and played a constructive role in their passage.

The Legislature’s piecemeal actions, although worthy, reinforce the need for a national, comprehensive solution. Both sides at the Capitol acknowledged that truth. As Brown said in his statement on the driver’s license bill: “Hopefully, it will send a message to Washington that immigration reform is long past due.”

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