In 1996, Congress passed the “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act,” which forbid a state to confer a benefit to an individual who was not in the United States legally, unless the state acted to affirmatively do so. In other words, Congress told individual states that they had to pass their own laws in order to allow unauthorized immigrants benefits, such as in-state college tuition, state-funded scholarship opportunities and the issuance of licenses of all sorts.
About a decade ago, California started to do just that, starting with AB 540. This landmark legislation is where we first started to recognize that it is irrational and counterproductive to penalize young students who were often brought here as small children, who had worked hard and simply wanted the opportunity to attend our public universities.
We began to know these kids as “Dreamers:” brave, dedicated young people who simply wanted to normalize their existence in the only country they had ever known as home. Smartly, our state and federal government both began to confer additional opportunities to Dreamers, including the opportunity for financial aid, deferred action from deportation, work visas and drivers’ licenses.
Many Dreamers have absolutely thrived in the face of extreme challenges — they’ve graduated from high school, fought for our country, attended college, even graduated law school and passed the bar. Then in early September, we learned by way of oral arguments in front of the California Supreme Court, that unless the state Legislature acted, those Dreamers would not have the opportunity to actually practice law. In the case of Sergio Garcia, we met a Dreamer who was brought here at 17 months old and had been approved, but was waiting, for a green card for over 14 years. He worked his way through college and law school, passed the bar on the first attempt and was found to be morally fit to practice law. He was actually sworn in as an attorney before the state realized it had to rescind the license a few weeks later.
Assembly Bill 1024 seeks to fix this problem by allowing the State of California the ability to grant these Dreamers — who have graduated from law school, passed the moral character inspection and passed the bar exam — a license to practice law. The bill passed the Legislature in the final week of session with broad, bipartisan support, and now sits on the Governor’s desk.
Many of us would prefer Congress to act on Comprehensive Immigration Reform with a realistic path to citizenship for the 11 million-plus immigrants in this country. But that just doesn’t seem to be happening on the near horizon, and we have already been waiting too long for these hard-working young people, who just desperately want to pursue a career in their field of study so that they can earn a living and pay taxes.
For me, this is also personal. My father came to this country as a farmworker. But, for the grace of God, I was born in San Diego County, just a few dozen miles north of the US-Mexico border. As a result, when I graduated from UCLA School of Law and passed the bar, I never once had to consider that the state would deny me a license to practice. I am not a better person and am no more deserving than Sergio Garcia and the other Dreamers in his position.
Without the federal government’s help in fixing a terribly broken immigration system, there are actions we can take in California to make life more equitable for folks who are caught in between. That’s why I hope you will join me in asking Governor Brown to sign AB 1024.
Lorena Gonzalez serves in the California State Assembly as the representative for the 80th District, which includes Chula Vista, San Diego and National City.