Blog Post

Immigrant Community in California Drives Reform: La Colectividad

Armando Gudiño

In 1965 the Johnson administration passed the Immigration and Nationality Act giving way to a transformation in this country that continues to have ripples to this day. Since then, over 59 million immigrants have come to the US, making foreign-born residents 14% of the population. In 1971, the Nixon administration declared war on drugs which also quickly became a war on immigrants.

While Johnson sought to end selective exclusion of immigrants, Nixon quickly replaced it with a policy of exclusive persecution and did so under the auspices of the war on drugs. Today that persecution continues. According to Syracuse University, roughly 40,000 people have been deported for drug law violations every year since 2008. A nonviolent drug offense was the cause of deportation for more than one in ten (11%) of people deported in 2013 for any reason.

The drug policy reform movement continues to be challenged when addressing the issue of immigration further complicated by the lack of a comprehensive immigration reform, leaving the U.S. in a growing state of crisis with no immediate solution on the horizon. Perhaps a change lies in the Latino/Immigrant community?

By 2042 the U.S. Latino population is expected to reach 100 million, when one in four persons will be Latino. More than a dozen immigrant integration laws have passed in California since 2001 and that trend continues today. In 2015 the immigrant rights community, legislators and other civic leaders proposed some of the most comprehensive state immigration reform legislation in the nation.

The latest round of CA legislation seeks to embrace the contributions of unauthorized immigrants. The centerpiece of the package was obtaining expanded access to health insurance coverage for immigrants, legislation that was signed by the governor earlier this summer. Other bill proposals included laws that will:

  • establish the California Office of New Americans within the Governor’s Office.
  • limit misuse of E-Verify and create penalties for abuse by employers.
  • make it illegal for businesses to discriminate against a person on the basis of their immigration status, citizenship, or language.
  • prohibit immigration attorneys and consultants from demanding advance payments for pending government immigration actions.
  • allow immigrant crime victims to apply for a federal Victim of Crime Visa.
  • allow defendants to benefit from pre-trial diversion programs when detained for non-violent minor drug offenses including the opportunity to  become eligible to withdraw a guilty or no contest plea and in some cases plead not guilty and avoid the “adverse immigration consequence.

The latter on the list, Deferred Entry of Judgement: Pretrial Diversion and Withdrawal of Plea, seeks to reform the state’s rehabilitation programs and help prevent the unintended consequences of minor drug offenses including deportation. Pretrial diversion is a state program that recognizes that rehabilitation – not harsh and unrelenting punitive measures – saves lives, saves money and strengthens our communities.

This recent piece of legislation championed by immigrant and civil rights groups along with the Drug Policy Alliance will provide pretrial diversion for minor drug offenses, protecting defendants from long-term negative consequences, including loss of federal housing and educational benefits, and eliminating unintended federal consequences that flow from minor drug offenses including deportation. Its partner legislation will allow individuals who have already completed rehabilitation programs to withdraw previous guilty pleas. In short, this bill will keep California families together and end this incidence of second-class treatment of immigrants by our justice system.

Supporters, activists and leaders of organizations like the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights Los Angeles, and dozens of other immigrant and civil rights organizations in California have sponsored and passed countless life changing laws to improve conditions for immigrants in California. So today we honor the immigrant who has given rise to a nation of new generations poised to take the ranks of those who before them were also products of immigration seeking new opportunities in America. Today we commemorate all immigrants here and abroad who continue to struggle in their efforts for the right to self-determination.

Read in Spanish. / Leer en Español.

Armando Gudiño is the California policy manager at the Drug Policy Alliance.

This is part of a series dedicated to Hispanic Heritage Month commemorating the impact made by Latino drug policy reformers.

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Hispanic Heritage Month