NY Times: California Gives Expanded Rights to Noncitizens

September 20, 2013

By: Jennifer Medina

LOS ANGELES — California is challenging the historic status of American citizenship with measures to permit noncitizens to sit on juries and monitor polls for elections in which they cannot vote and to open the practice of law even to those here illegally. It is the leading edge of a national trend that includes granting drivers’ licenses and in-state tuition to illegal immigrants in some states and that suggests legal residency could evolve into an appealing option should immigration legislation fail to produce a path to citizenship.

With 3.5 million noncitizens who are legal permanent residents in California, some view the changes as an acknowledgment of who is living here and the need to require some public service of them. But the new laws raise profound questions about which rights and responsibilities rightly belong to citizens over residents.

“What is more basic to our society than being able to judge your fellow citizens?” asked Jessica A. Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School, referring to jury service. “We’re absolutely going to the bedrock of things here and stretching what we used to think of as limits.”

One new state law allows legal permanent residents to monitor polls during elections, help translate instructions and offer other assistance to voting citizens. And immigrants who were brought into the country illegally by their parents will be able to practice law here, something no other states allow.

In many ways, the new measures underscore the lock Democrats have over the State Capitol, where they hold an overwhelming majority in both houses. Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, signed the poll worker legislation this month and has indicated his approval of the other bills. Many of the changes, including granting drivers’ licenses to unauthorized immigrants, passed with overwhelming support and the backing of several Republicans.

State legislatures across the country approved a host of new immigrant-friendly measures this year, a striking change from just three years ago, when many states appeared poised to follow Arizona’s lead to enact strict laws aimed at curbing illegal immigration. More than a dozen states now grant illegal immigrants in-state college tuition, and nine states and the District of Columbia also allow them to obtain drivers’ licenses.

With an estimated 2.5 million illegal immigrants living in California — more than in any other state in the country — some say the state has no choice but to find additional ways to integrate immigrants.

“It’s a recognition that how people are living and working in their community might trump their formal legal status,” said Hiroshi Motomura, an immigration law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. “There is an argument that in parts of California a jury without a legal permanent resident is not really a jury of peers. Some view citizenship as the final consecration of complete integration, but this says, ‘Let’s take who we have and get them to participate in our civil institutions.’ ”

Early this month, the State Supreme Court suggested during a hearing that lawmakers could create a law to address the case of Sergio Garcia, who was brought to the United States illegally as a child. Mr. Garcia had met every other requirement to become a licensed lawyer. Within days, legislation was approved to allow immigrants who were brought here illegally as minors to obtain law licenses, with just three opposing votes.

But the bill to allow noncitizens to sit on juries has proved more controversial. Several newspaper editorials have urged Mr. Brown to veto it.

Rocky Chávez, a Republican assemblyman from northern San Diego County, said that allowing noncitizens to serve on a jury would make it harder to uphold American standards of law.

“What we call domestic violence is appropriate in other countries, so the question becomes, ‘How do we enforce our own social norms?’ ” Mr. Chávez said. He added that granting more privileges would weaken immigrants’ desires to become citizens. “Once we erase all these distinctions, what’s next? What is going to convince someone it is essential to get citizenship?”

Departing from their role regarding other bills affecting immigrants, advocacy groups largely stayed out of the debate over the jury duty bill, which was sponsored by Assemblyman Bob Wieckowski, a Bay Area Democrat who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

“Being a juror really has nothing to do with being a citizen,” Mr. Wieckowski said. “You don’t release your prejudices or histories just because you take an oath of citizenship, and you don’t lose the ability to listen to testimony impartially just because you haven’t taken that oath either.”

He said that roughly 15 percent of people who received a jury duty summons never showed up and that the legislation would make it easier to impanel juries. Mr. Wieckowski said that he expected the governor to sign the bill and that the changes would quickly become accepted.

“It’s the same thing that happened with gay marriage: people got past their initial prejudices and realized it was just discrimination,” he said.

Supporters say that expanding the pool of those eligible to serve on juries and work the polls would serve citizens as well as immigrants. Several counties in California are required to print ballots and voting instructions in languages other than English. In Los Angeles County, ballots are available in Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, Armenian, Tagalog and Vietnamese.

But advocates say that the printed instructions are often insufficient and that many people are turned away from the polls because they simply cannot communicate. Expanding the pool of potential poll workers to include legal permanent residents will allow more citizens to vote, they say.

Critics say that the Legislature is going too far and that the legislation will probably face legal challenges.

“It seems they stay up late dreaming up ways they can reward illegal immigration and create either new benefits or new protections for illegal immigrants,” said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which backs stricter federal laws. “The overriding objective of the California Legislature is to further blur the distinction between citizen and immigrant, legal and not.”

State legislators and advocates had for years sought a law to allow unauthorized immigrants to obtain drivers’ licenses. Earlier legislation to create licenses for them had been vetoed by the previous governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Governor Brown signaled during his 2010 election that he would do the same.

But this year, a Republican co-sponsor signed on to the bill, and Mr. Brown quietly assured supporters that he would sign it as long as it included a marking to distinguish such a license from the existing driver’s license.

Assemblyman Luis A. Alejo, a Democrat and a sponsor of the bill, traced his involvement back to protests against the 1994 state ballot initiative that would have strictly limited access to public services for immigrants here illegally.

“Twenty years ago, that drove activists like me to get serious about school, and now we’re able to lead these pro-immigrant rights legislation, which is the total opposite of what was happening then,” Mr. Alejo said. “What was really controversial then is the reality now.”