After years of indecision about what to do about the 11 million undocumented people living in the nation, Congress stands at the threshold of adopting comprehensive immigration reform. But the door remains locked.
The U.S. Senate has approved a reform package that the president supports, and if the legislation is ever put to a vote on the House floor, the expectation is it would pass with broad bipartisan support.
But floor action is unlikely any time soon because, as with the funding bills that prevent a reopening of the federal government, Speaker John Boehner is so tied to the wishes of conservative hard-liners — i.e. tea partyers — that he refuses to let the package come up for a vote.
Thus states are left to do what they can to address the problem without the help of federal officials.
California is proving to be at the forefront of that movement. In recent days, Gov. Jerry Brown has signed a series of immigration-related bills, including one that would allow some of the state's 2.5 million undocumented immigrants to get drivers licenses and all-important auto insurance.
"While Washington waffles on immigration, California's forging ahead," Brown noted. "I'm not waiting."
Late last week, he took his most meaningful step yet by putting his name to legislation that will make it harder for federal agents to detain undocumented California residents who are being held for minor offenses and pose no threat to the public's health and safety.
Known as the Trust Act, Assembly Bill 4 by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, will limit how long local law enforcement agencies' may hold undocumented immigrants booked into county or community jails. Local police agencies will be prohibited from using federal holds unless the individuals involved are charged with or convicted of a serious felony or certain misdemeanors. The holds also can be used for registered sex offenders.
We're not opposed to these federal detainers. They're a necessary tool in the effort to patrol American borders and to locate and potentially deport felons. But they also have been used to put indefinite holds on U.S. citizens and legal immigrants who have been arrested on suspicion of minor offenses. And because of the broad disparity in how the rules are applied among local agencies, it's difficult for those caught in this legal limbo to get the help they need.
The Trust Act creates for the first time a statewide standard for how local agencies should comply with the federal immigration detainers.
On Monday, Brown sent another important message. He showed that not all immigration-related measures sent to him by the Legislature were going to get his stamp of approval. He vetoed a bill that would have allowed undocumented residents to serve on juries. "This bill would permit lawful residents who are not citizens to serve on a jury," the governor said in his veto message. "I don't think that's right."
We don't either.
None of these measures are foolproof. Conflicts will continue to arise between federal and local agencies until Congress finds the will and means to adopt comprehensive immigration reform. But in the absence of action at the federal level, California is doing what it can to move the needle.