California Gov. Jerry Brown Signs Slew Of Immigration Laws, Challenges Congress To Follow His Lead

Immigration reform policy lingers in limbo in Washington, but in California, well, it's quite a different story.

Just two days after Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown approved a measure allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses, he signed several more bills that stand to dramatically impact the state's immigration landscape.

On Saturday, Brown signed a law called the Trust Act, which bans law enforcement officials from detaining a foreign national they arrest longer than they need to so that immigration authorities can pick them up, usually to put them in deportation proceedings. He also signed a law allowing undocumented immigrants to get a license to practice law, as well as measures limiting who can charge immigrants for helping them with legal work, and making it a crime for employers to try to terrify a person by threatening to report them to immigration authorities.

“While Washington waffles on immigration, California’s forging ahead,” Brown said, according to published reports. “I’m not waiting.”

While Washington waffles on immigration, California’s forging ahead. I’m not waiting.

— California Gov. Jerry Brown

The two measures were among eight that the Democrat signed on Saturday, a day when advocates of comprehensive immigration reform held marches and vigils in more than 40 states to put pressure on Congress to pass a law that will improve the system. A nucleus of the marches is a call for many of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States to get an opportunity to legalize their status, and come out of the shadows.

In June, the Senate passed a bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill that would, at its core, tighten enforcement while also providing a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants who meet a strict set of criteria.

Efforts to advance immigration reform legislation in the House stalled in the summer, as some Republicans, who control the chamber, vowed not to rubber-stamp the Senate version — they have expressed objections over allowing a pathway to legal status for many of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants. Several Republican leaders in the House said they preferred to deal with immigration through separate bills instead of one overarching one.

House Democrats unveiled a bill Wednesday that includes a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants who meet a strict set of criteria, and that tightens border security.

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and more than a dozen Democrats told reporters that they were ready to move on the legislation. Prospects are highly uncertain, however, for anything as contentious as immigration amid the budget standoff that has paralyzed Congress.

In the meantime, numerous local officials around the country have said they will stop complying with requests by immigration officials to detain people whom they arrest, but who are not dangerous criminals or national security threats, so that the federal agents can take custody over them -- "detainers," as the agents call them.

“We’re not using our jails as a holding vat for the immigration service,” Brown said on Saturday, according to The Washington Post.

Groups that advocate strict immigration enforcement say that California will encourage more illegal immigration and send the message that the nation's laws can be ignored.

The National Day Laborer Organizing Network, or NDLON, one of the organizations that pushed for the TRUST Act, lauded Brown’s approval of the measure.

"The tide is turning,” said NDLON Executive Director Pablo Alvarado, in a statement. “California’s historic legislation marks a shift of the pendulum away from the criminalization of immigrants and against the idea that police should have any role in immigration enforcement. The more the public learns about the failed Secure Communities deportation program, the more clear it becomes that it should be ended.”

Last week, a new report showed that Obama administration guidelines released in December calling for immigration detainers to be reserved for the most dangerous foreign nationals are going largely ignored.

Fewer than 10 percent of detainers actually targeted people who are considered a threat to public safety and national security, contrary to the stated objective of the new guidelines, said a report by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, or TRAC, a nonpartisan think tank.

The new analysis brought criticism against the Obama administration, which has presided over a record number of deportations, with some 400,000 a year since he took office in 2008.

In 2010 and 2011, ICE officials said they would shift their enforcement priorities to target people who were a threat to public safety or national security. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano had said at the time that prioritizing violent criminals would result in a better use of resources. But the new strategy never entirely took hold, the TRAC report noted.

“Actual agency detainer practices in the field were often at variance with the Obama Administration's announced priorities,” the report said.

NDLON’s Alvarado said he hopes that the White House follows California’s lead.

“The President should take a cue from the state of California and other locales that have rejected his deportation quota program,” he said, “and reverse course on his Administration's policies of Arizonification.”