Welcome mat: How California has responded to influx of migrants

When Gov. Gavin Newsom announced this week’s trip to El Salvador, he framed its purpose as part scholarly, part Good Samaritan.

“Let’s understand what’s happening,” he told an audience in Los Angeles late last month. “And let’s see if we can help!”

It’s that second part that has raised the obvious question from some quarters: Help, how?

Without its own diplomatic corps or immigration policy, California can’t start “issuing its own visas or have a different policy towards El Salvador than the United States,” said Deep Gulasekaram, a law professor at Santa Clara University. Newsom has described the trip as a “fact-finding” mission. Leaving aside the broader question of whether the governor needed to go to El Salvador in person to find those facts, what exactly are the policies that they will inform?

Immigration law—who gets to come into the country and who gets to stay—is the exclusive purview of the federal government. But the laws that apply to immigrants once they get here—the rights and benefits they enjoy and their relationship with local and state authorities—is something that Sacramento policymakers have plenty of experience weighing in on.

All told, said Gulasekaram, California likely has the “most integrative” policy toward undocumented immigrants of any state. Here are a few of the ways the Democrats who control California’s Capitol have diverged from the the Trump administration and responded to the migratory crisis on its southern border.

1. Money for migrants

Since taking office, Gov. Newsom has signed a bill to spend $5 million to fund nonprofits that provide emergency services for asylum seekers. His proposed budget includes another $20 million.

Much of the funding will go to a short-term shelter operated by the Jewish Family Service of San Diego, set up earlier this year to provide temporary accommodation for migrants released from border patrol custody without food, money or the ability to travel to their closest loved ones.

Those who operate the shelter in downtown San Diego—which also offers health screenings, logistical help and rudimentary legal assistance to migrants—estimate that they’ve served roughly 12,000 people.

The increase in financial aid is welcome news to immigration rights organizers such as Norma Chavez-Peterson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial Counties.

“It just goes to show what you can do when you have a state that’s willing to respond, willing to be innovative, and willing to take some responsibility even though technically, they could just point the finger and say this is a federal problem,” she said.

2. Status-blind Medi-Cal

Medi-Cal, the public health insurance program for low-income Californians, covers qualifying children up to the age of 18 regardless of their immigration status. Adults are still barred from accessing most of the state’s subsidized health insurance programs. Researchers at UC Berkeley and UCLA estimate that roughly 40 percent of California’s uninsured are undocumented immigrants.

The governor is hoping to change that. His budget proposal includes a plan to expand coverage to undocumented Californians under the age of 26.

Sen. María Elena Durazo, a newly elected Democrat from East Los Angeles wants to go a step further. She has proposed a bill that would make every low-income Californian eligible for Medi-Cal, regardless of immigration status and age. Last year, the Legislative Analyst’s Office estimated that such a proposal would cost $3 billion per year. And some Republicans in Congress have already taken umbrage at Newsom’s proposal. Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy declared earlier this year that he would push legislation to block California, adding: “It’s crazy for California liberals to provide free health care to anyone in the world who can sneak across our border. Taking care of the most vulnerable Americans should be our priority.”

3. A state agency

Assemblyman David Chiu, a San Francisco Democrat, has introduced a bill that would create a California Immigrant and Refugee Affairs Agency.

The state already has a Director of Immigrant Integration and provides an array of services for undocumented immigrants. But under Chiu’s proposal, the agency would be responsible for coordinating all of these services across local, state and federal partners.

4. Legal help

For two years, the state has provided funding for nonprofits that provide legal services for undocumented immigrants in California. These funds are meant primarily to help those who came to the county as children apply for the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, though in some instances the funding has been used to help other undocumented immigrants fighting deportation proceedings or applying for asylum.

Earlier this year, the governor proposed $75 million for immigration-related legal services. That includes a little over $1 million for UC students and their families.

5. Sanctuary state

The most controversial—if not necessarily the most consequential—of California’s immigrant-related laws, the 2017 law puts limits on how much state and local law enforcement officers can cooperate with federal immigration authorities.

The law does not apply to state prison employees who might coordinate with U.S. immigration agencies hoping to deport a convicted felon. But it does prevent a police officer, sheriff or highway patrolmen from inquiring about a person’s immigration status, detain someone solely at the request of federal immigration agencies or otherwise act as an immigration authority.

Those details aside, it’s been one of the fiercest battles in the many-fronted political war between Democratic California and the Trump administration. Just a month after the president’s inauguration, Trump threatened to cut off federal funding over was then only a proposed law. Sacramento and Washington have been fighting it out in court ever since—although it also has fierce opponents within California as well, including sheriffs in more conservative counties.

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