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A New Way of Thinking About Citizenship for Immigrants

Where national efforts are failing, states like California are stepping up to the plate.
A graduation ceremony, at Santa Monica City College, California, in 1998. (Photo: Joseph Sohm/Shutterstock)

A graduation ceremony, at Santa Monica City College, California, in 1998. (Photo: Joseph Sohm/Shutterstock)

There's something special about living in California. Long considered the land of dreams, the Golden State has a history of innovationfrom the 1800's-era forty-niners to today's technology hopefuls. That's perhaps especially true for immigrants of all kinds, according to a policy brief published today by the University of California-Riverside.

Through a unique set of laws, California offers unauthorized immigrants a level of opportunity and freedom of movement that is rare elsewhere in the nation. "California today provides the most integrationist laws in the country with respect to unauthorized immigrants," write public policy professor Karthick Ramakrishnan and his student, Allan Colbern, authors of the policy brief. The result? California offers a de facto state citizenship that's totally separate from national citizenship—and more progressive even than the immigration reform President Barack Obama is currently advocating for. Ramakrishnan and Colbern call the state's immigration laws the "California Package."

The "California Package" is a combination of laws that offer unauthorized immigrants citizen-like benefits that wouldn't apply to them if they lived elsewhere, and that demonstrate states' power over immigrants' lives:

• Health Care: California offers health care coverage, including prenatal care, for low-income Californians even if they don't qualify for coverage through programs such as the Affordable Care Act because of their immigration status. California also makes its Children's Health Insurance Program available to undocumented immigrant children.

• Education: Any child who has spent enough time attending California schools qualifies for in-state tuition at California colleges.

• Freedom of Movement: Undocumented immigrants can get driver's licenses in California. This is true in 10 other states, too.

• Freedom to Work: Unauthorized immigrants are able to qualify for the California state bar. In 2016, they'll be eligible for 40 state professional licenses. The federal government offers a database called E-Verify that lets companies easily check the authorization status of potential employees. Arizona requires all employers use E-Verify; California bans any municipality from instating such a requirement.

Yet the California Package is just one example of how state laws now matter more to immigrants' legal rights than federal laws do, the researchers argue. That is, state-level power can work for and against immigrants. For example, California's neighboring state, Arizona, is one of the nation's most exclusionary of immigrants. It has laws on the books that punish companies more severely than federal laws do for hiring undocumented workers, and require police to check the immigration status of anyone they deem suspicious. Arizona and four other states deny in-state tuition even to fully documented, "legal" immigrants. Meanwhile, unauthorized immigrants who attended a California elementary or high school for at least three years are eligible for in-state tuition and state-funded scholarships, grants, and loans. Undocumented immigrants can qualify for the California state bar, and by 2016, they'll be eligible for 39 other professional licenses, too. California and Arizona are states located in a similar geographic area, with historically similar influxes of immigrants, that chose to deal with the issue very differently.

State power offers a whole new way of thinking about citizenship, as separate from being a citizen of the United States, Ramakrishnan and Colbern write. For lobbying groups, state governments represent an opportunity to win rights where national efforts, such as the repeated efforts to pass a national DREAM Act, failed. (To be sure, California's Dream Act passed in 2011.) Some groups have already taken notice and shifted their funding, Ramakrishnan and Colbern learned from interviews.