If a state initiative succeeds, hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants living in California could work without the threat of deportation.
On Friday, California Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes, a Democrat from Sylmar, Calif., filed a proposal with the state attorney general’s office. The move marked the first step in an effort to gather 504,760 voter signatures — the number needed to qualify for a place on the ballot.
Fuentes said his measure, called the California Opportunity and Prosperity Act, is a “moderate, common-sense approach” by the state to compensate for the federal government’s shortcomings, according to an article in the Sacramento Bee.
The proposed act could create around $325 million in new tax dollars from undocumented workers, supporters say. John Cruz, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s former appointments secretary, said longtime undocumented residents would be able to “fully contribute to society by becoming taxpayers as well” under the initiative.
But Tim Donnelly, a Republican from Twin Peaks, Calif., countered that the measure wouldn’t have a “snowball’s chance in hell” with voters. Immigrants must follow a “proper process for coming to this country,” Donnelly added.
Even with support by Californian voters, the Opportunity and Prosperity Act would rely on the federal government’s cooperation. Because federal law prohibits employers from hiring undocumented immigrants, the program would need the state to seek exceptions from the federal government to protect program participants and their employers.
Donnelly said the proposal “essentially asks the federal government not to enforce the law,” and that it would be unlikely for a select group of undocumented immigrants to be made exceptions.
The act, if it were to pass, would apply to illegal immigrants who can speak or are learning English, are not suspected terrorists and have no felony convictions. They would also have to pay a fee for the program and have lived in California for at least four years.
According to a Pew Research Center study released the day before the proposal was filed, nearly two-thirds of the 10.2 million adult undocumented immigrants living in the United States have been here for at least 10 years. The estimates are based on data collected in 2010 by the U.S. Census Bureau.
The analysis found 35 percent of adult illegal immigrants have lived in the United States for 15 or more years, more than double since 2000. Another 28 percent have been here for 10 to 14 years, and 22 percent for five to nine years. Similarly, the number of adult undocumented immigrants who have lived in the United States for less than five years fell from 32 percent to just 15 percent in 2010.
The Pew study’s numbers suggest most of these immigrants came to the United States in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Since then, fewer and fewer immigrants have come, likely deterred by the tightening of border security and struggling economy.
As is often the case when lawmakers pursue real immigration reform, and not just clamor for another wall on the border, anti-immigration paranoia heats up before it hears all the facts.
Detractors like Donnelly argue the proposal circumvents federal law, is not what voters would want and will encourage more illegal immigrants to come. But they often fail to acknowledge the millions of undocumented immigrants who are already here. Fuentes’ initiative is a realistic approach; unless lawmakers can find an equally realistic way to round up the 10.2 million adults living in the United States illegally and stop more from coming, the California Opportunity and Prosperity Act is the best option on the table.
The Pew numbers demonstrate that California is on the right track, and the country needs to follow suit. Millions of families need to be offered an alternative to living in hiding for decades.
— Kristina Bui is the copy chief. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.