California is Leading the Way

By Angelica Salas and Reshma Shamasunder


Photo courtesy of CHIRLA/Jorge-Mario Cabrera

California is soaring as a national leader on immigrant rights issues. The high-profile slate of immigrant rights bills that California Governor Jerry Brown signed last year marks the culmination of a transformation that has been brewing in the Golden State for two decades.

We are proud of the strides our state has made, yet much work remains.

Just 20 years ago, California passed the discriminatory Proposition 187—a measure that sought to deny undocumented immigrants education and access to basic services and to punish all immigrants. The story of how our state rejected the politics of hate and division to become the leader on immigrant rights—and our next steps on the road to full inclusion—offers valuable lessons for the nation.

California’s transformation

The pushback began in the shadow of an anti-immigrant climate. Even as the courts were striking down much of Proposition 187, the measure was spawning harsh legislation in other states and at the federal level that deepened the injustice facing immigrant communities and pushed millions of immigrants out of federal health programs. But this negative climate also sparked powerful grassroots organizing that soon began to rack up pro-immigrant policy victories.

Fallout from Proposition 187 encouraged thousands of documented immigrants to become citizens and use the power of their vote to transform politics in California. Grassroots organizations and labor unions adopted an integrated social change strategy that included mass citizenship workshops, public education and mobilization of the New American electorate at the polls. The children of immigrants became involved in a burgeoning immigrant rights movement that demanded that California’s elected representatives acknowledge their current and future contributions to the state’s prosperity. Immigrant workers organized in factories, office buildings, homes and street corners to demand more just treatment and wages.

This exercise of political and organizing power soon began to have an impact on state policy in California. An early step was winning health and other benefits for some immigrants barred from federal programs in the late ‘90s. Then, in 2001, California became one of the first states to make undocumented college students eligible for in-state tuition rates. That same year, the state made healthcare accessible to legal immigrant children. Ten years later, the state stood up against mandatory E-Verify—the workplace electronic check for immigration status—and the unnecessary impoundment of the cars of unlicensed immigrant drivers. It also passed the California DREAM Act, giving undocumented students who grew up in California the same access to state financial aid as any other student.

Then came the landmark bills of 2013, which included driver’s licenses for all Californians, the TRUST Act to limit painful detentions and deportations, the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, key protections for immigrant workers and many other measures. California made what Governor Jerry Brown declared a “grand and great transition” towards a more inclusive future.

Behind 2013’s victories

Let’s be clear; these were not easy wins. Governor Brown definitively showed his support for immigrant communities by signing these bills, but he had vetoed some of the same measures in 2012.

These victories were due to the courage of immigrant communities, who spoke out for their rights–often at great personal risk. At the forefront of many of these campaigns were immigrant parents, workers, young people and California residents who stood up to protect themselves and their families from harassment, deportation and other unfair policies and practices to which they were regularly exposed.

Vocal immigrant youth, worker centers, regional immigrant rights coalitions comprised of sometimes dozens or more grassroots organizations, and faith based organizing networks were just a few of those within the immigrant rights movement who mobilized, organized, planned and executed smart, strategic campaigns.

What’s next?

We are proud of the strides our state has made, yet much work remains. California’s immigrant communities and organizations are at the forefront of the national campaign for reform and are pushing for California to continue to lead the way.

We have seen record deportations of immigrants in California and across the United States in the past five years. At the national level, we need to halt deportations now, and we need immigration reform that keeps families together and upholds America’s values of full inclusion and equality.

On the state front, we must continue to break down those remaining hurdles that keep immigrants from enjoying full equity as Californians. Among the most abhorrent exclusions currently in place is the inability of undocumented immigrants to access full health coverage and care. The health and lives of our immigrant residents and families depend upon their access to preventative care and treatment for health issues and diseases.

Other areas that require long-term advocacy include additional protections for immigrant workers, increasing educational access and equity for immigrant communities, and continuing to push back against the conditions faced by immigrants and other detainees in prisons and detention facilities.

This is a moment of unlimited possibilities for transformative change. The mass civic engagement and coordination of immigrant communities and their organizations that Prop 187 sparked has led to our recent victories. With a powerful immigrant rights movement and state leaders who have come to understand and champion immigrant issues, we have forged the political will to continue to lead the nation in advancing real and full inclusion of immigrants.