SAN DIEGO — It’s wild here in the West. All because of how California Gov. Jerry Brown is trying to finesse the immigration issue.
Brown just signed three bills intended to empower illegal immigrants – giving them driver’s licenses, allowing those who graduate from law school to obtain law licenses and reining in the degree to which local and state police cooperate with federal immigration agents. But the governor vetoed another bill that would have allowed legal residents who are noncitizens to sit on juries.
According to my scorecard, Brown was correct on three out of four. He was right on driver’s licenses and police cooperation. So, too, on vetoing noncitizens on juries. He was wrong on law licenses; those who are in a constant state of breaking the law and live outside the law can’t take an oath to uphold the law.
Clearly, these are interesting times in the nation’s most populous state, which is also estimated to be home to the largest number of illegal immigrants. The times are also interesting for Brown, who has packaged this latest surge of pro-immigrant laws as an example of California leading on a thorny issue and going where Congress fears to tread.
On a recent trip to New York, an editor asked me how Brown was doing in office. Many people around the country are probably wondering the same thing. They remember Brown, who is the 39th governor of California, from his first time in the governor’s mansion, from 1975 to 1983. Back then, the long-haired chief executive was dubbed “Governor Moonbeam” and got as much attention for dating pop singer Linda Ronstadt as he did for his legislative agenda. Brown went on to unsuccessfully run for president three times. In the final attempt, in 1992, Bill Clinton ripped into him during a debate and accused him of constantly reinventing himself to please the electorate.
Let’s remember that Brown has been in politics – starting as a member of the Los Angeles Community College District board of trustees – since 1969, the same year that Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. Brown knows this business backward and forward. Yet when Bill Clinton, the best politician in a generation, essentially challenges your honesty and calls you a phony, that’s your signal that it’s time to get out of the game.
Instead, Brown ran for governor a second time in 2010, and was easily elected, in part because of strong support from Latinos who now account for one in five voters in the Golden State. They’re also 38 percent of the population, and are now a force to be reckoned with by politicians.
As I told the editor, this time around the 75-year-old Brown seems at peace. He keeps a low profile. Rather than a young man in a hurry angling for the White House, it seems that what Californians have now is a more mature man who realizes that this is his last stop on the political train and so he’s just trying to do the right thing.
But when it comes to the issue of illegal immigration, it’s not always easy to figure out what the right thing is. You can be pro-immigrant and still draw the line at people violating our nation’s borders and then demanding accommodations. You can insist that illegal immigrants not be exploited or mistreated, but also worry about the economic effect on working-class Americans who have to compete with them for jobs. This debate is as complicated as they come.
Brown is fully aware of this. In between his stints in the governor’s office, he was also mayor of Oakland and state attorney general.
In Oakland City Hall, he got an earful from constituents about how African-Americans and working-class folks are being pushed out of jobs and neighborhoods by illegal immigrants. As attorney general, he was the chief law enforcement officer in the state and entered into some of the same agreements with federal immigration agents that he now apparently wants to curtail.
Anywhere else, this might sound strange. Maybe even hypocritical. But this is Crazi-fornia, where people come for a second chance, where everyone gets a makeover and where it’s understood that man’s greatest invention is reinvention.
Ruben Navarrette is a columnist for U-T San Diego. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
CORRECTION: In a recent column on Sergio Garcia, an illegal immigrant seeking a law license in California, I wrote that Garcia had applied for citizenship. He applied for a green card.