Statewide Politics Dominate CA Immigration Debate By Nicky Riordan
The California State Legislature passed various protections for immigrants in late 2017 making California the first "sanctuary state." Stark internal division within the state and the political parties on immigration is nothing new. The current political climate under the Trump Administration and Jeff Sessions’ Department of Justice, paired with high-stakes midterm elections later this year, have brought new life to the conversation. This series will analyze nuanced dynamics of immigration policy and ideology across California during the 2018 midterm campaign.
With a recent news cycle focused on the Supreme Court, and the midterms quickly approaching, immigration has taken a backseat in the national conversation, but the issue has continued to resurface in statewide and local debates across the state of California. Two areas where this issue has become increasingly important are the race for the next Governor of California, and the statewide Senate race. Current Governor Jerry Brown and Senator Kamala Harris have been instrumental in California’s fight to take the progressive national lead on this issue, and whether California continues to push back against hardline Trump Administration policies is dependent on statewide elections this year.
In the Governor’s race, SB 54 - the “Sanctuary State” law signed by Brown last year - presents a strict contrast between the two candidates running to replace him in 2018. Democratic candidate Gavin Newsom has expressed strong support for the law, and has used his opponents stated goal of repealing it to tie him directly to Trump. John Cox, his Republican opponent, has sided with many law enforcement agencies across the state to paint the law as a detriment to public safety. In a recent debate, Cox tried to back away from this connection by saying he is against “checking papers” in public spaces, but his statements are indicative of a weary conservative party in California hoping to avoid an election motivated by public views on immigration.
This is largely due to the fact that Californians have been fairly supportive of SB 54, and have proven time and again to reject efforts to step up immigration enforcement in a way that targets individuals without a criminal history in community settings. Moreover, recent New York Times Upshot polling shows that in some of the most contentious and competitive Southern California Congressional races, a majority of voters reject the idea of a border wall and do not want to see stricter enforcement of immigration law at the community level. The same voters also tend to oppose abolishing ICE as well, highlighting that although national politics around immigration have moved far to the left in certain races, most Californians still see their positions as moderate on the issue.
In contrast to the signing of three landmark pro-immigration bills last year, outgoing Governor Brown took a more conservative approach to the issue at the end of this legislative cycle, leaving room his successor to set a new tone. He vetoed two key bills, slated by their authors and supporters to send a stronger message of rejection of Trump Administration policies; one that would have allowed all Californians - regardless of immigration or citizenship status - the option to serve on state and local boards and commissions, and one that aimed to address an uptick in courthouse arrests of immigrants who are in the United States illegally. Judges and prosecutors in California - as well as Arizona, Texas, and Colorado - have reported concerns about the ICE presence at local courthouses, and Democrats across the state have signaled an interest in creating additional safeguards around schools and hospitals as well. Governor Brown’s punt on this issue will definitely resurface after the 2018 elections and these decisions are motivating factors for advocacy groups going into the midterms.
Immigration policy has been in focus for the statewide Senate race between incumbent Dianne Feinstein and state Senator Kevin De Leon as well, as it is one area where progressive Democrats wishing to replace Feinstein see an opportunity. Her opponent De Leon, the author of SB 54, is using his progressive immigration record to push Feinstein to the left and make an argument that she has become too moderate for California in the age of Trump. In turn, Feinstein was one of the authors of a bill earlier this year to address family separations at the border, but De Leon and his supporters argue her efforts come too little, too late. The outcome of this Senate race will be a strong indicator for statewide sentiments about President Trump’s policies on key issues like immigration, and how this constituency expects statewide officials to respond.
While immigration policy is not at the forefront of key Congressional races in California, recent polls show that the Latino population in these districts are supporting Democratic candidates by large margins of up to 3-1. Although they make up a smaller share of likely voters in the most important districts, it is clear that in many cases, this constituency understands what is at stake. Interestingly, however, Republicans voting in very conservative districts like D48 list “securing the nation's’ borders” as a top priority, and Latino voters in this district were less likely to say they viewed this election as more important than usual. This seems to suggest that local support of immigrants and pro-immigrant policies may motivate and shore up the Latino vote.
The lack of statewide ballot initiatives addressing immigration further highlights a lack of movement on this issue in 2018, as California Democrats focus on tax cuts and the economy and Republicans try to hold on to their last strongholds in a very blue state. Major issues at hand this year include efforts to address the homelessness issue, affordable housing, and tax equity on the progressive side; Republicans are hoping that an effort to repeal the gas tax on statewide ballots will draw more conservative voters. There has been an entry for consideration on the 2020 California ballot, however, of a repeal of SB 54 and the institution of stricter voter ID and registration laws. With a chaotic national political climate and myriad immediate issues to address locally, immigration as a political issue in California remains at a simmer heading into the midterm elections only weeks away.
Nicky Riordan (@nriordan120), Political Analyst, The Utica College Center of Public Affairs and Election Research, reporting from California