California's Blurred Lines

The Golden State moves to erode distinctions between citizenship and mere residency.

The New York Times reports that California is in the process of expanding rights and privileges of noncitizens residing in that state. One new state law, signed by Governor Jerry Brown, allows legal noncitizen residents to monitor political balloting on election days, help translate ballot instructions and generally provide help to voters. Another piece of legislation, passed by the state Assembly, would allow noncitizen residents to sit on juries. In addition, the legislature approved a bill allowing immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children to obtain licenses to practice law in the state.

Although these legislative efforts are directed primarily at California’s estimated 3.5 million legal immigrants who remain noncitizens in the United States, it has implications for the ongoing debate over how to deal with the country’s eleven million or so illegal immigrants. Besides the idea that citizenship needn’t be a requirement for practicing law, even for people brought to the country illegally, this push is designed to obscure and fuzz up the distinction between citizenship and mere residency.

In other areas of the country, this fuzz-up effort bears more directly on the problem of illegal immigration. For example, illegal immigrants get in-state tuition in more than a dozen states. Nine states and the District of Columbia allow illegals to obtain driver’s licenses.

The Times piece itself, which ran September 21, suggests there is a serious connection between the California effort and the debate over illegal immigration. “With an estimated 2.5 million illegal immigrants living in California—more than in any other state in the country—some say the state has no choice but to find additional ways to integrate immigrants," said the article, written from Los Angeles by Jennifer Medina. The reporter calls the California efforts “the leading edge of a national trend that includes granting driver’s licenses and in-state tuition to illegal immigrants in some states and that suggest legal residency could evolve into an appealing option should immigration legislation fail to produce a path to citizenship."

In other words, suggests Medina, the fuzz-up effort is part of a broader concept, emerging in many states and particularly in California, to address the problem of illegal immigration through a piecemeal approach—in other words, through multiple actions designed to ease the way for illegals to participate more fully in everyday American life.

This seems to be the polar opposite of what the Arizona government sought to do with its famous SB1070 legislation, passed by the legislature and signed by Governor Jan Brewer in 2010. Instead of fuzzing up the distinction between citizenship and immigrant residency, it sought to place a statewide spotlight on illegals and crack down on unlawful entry. The law made it a state crime to be an illegal immigrant or to seek work without proper authorization; it also gave state and local law enforcement agencies greater leeway in verifying citizenship and arresting aliens based on probable cause.

Most of the law was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 in a 5-3 decision. Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, said Arizona had in effect usurped enforcement prerogatives and responsibilities that belong to the federal government, not to the states. The U.S. jurisdiction in such matters, wrote Kennedy, is "broad" and "undoubted."

The California efforts don’t seem on their face to violate Kennedy’s strictures about federal prerogative, as they largely relate to the 3.5 million or so noncitizen immigrants who reside in California legally. But the actions do raise questions about the "path to citizenship" for illegals that many advocates want to see in any comprehensive immigration legislation. Even before such legislation passes, California seems bent on wiping away as many distinctions as possible between the rights and privileges of U.S. citizens and these others who entered the country illegally but would, under the legislation, be given a means over time of becoming citizens or merely noncitizen residents.

The California debate, as reported in the Times, focused on such things as how easy or difficult it is to fill jury pools and whether jurors from other cultures may not fully appreciate the U.S. justice system. All this misses the point.

The real question posed by such actions and maneuvers is this: What is the value of U.S. citizenship? If the rights and privileges of citizenship—indeed, even its obligations—are to be conferred upon others, doesn’t that erode what it means to be an American and cheapen the value of citizenship? Did the Founders labor in crafting this delicate system and its defenders fight and die for it over two centuries merely to have the very definition of participation be extended to others, willy-nilly, who have never sworn any fealty to the nation?

Medina seems to understand the political power in such questions. The new California laws, she writes, "raise profound questions about which rights and responsibilities rightly belong to citizens over residents." And she quotes Ira Mehlman, spokesman for a national group backing stricter federal laws governing illegal immigration, as saying, "The overriding objective of the California Legislature is to further blur the distinction between citizen and immigrant, legal and not."