Gov. Jerry Brown weighs law to let noncitizens serve on public boards and commissions in California
Noncitizens, including those in the country illegally, will be allowed to serve on boards and commissions in California if Gov. Jerry Brown signs a bill known as the California Inclusion Act.
Under Senate Bill 174, which was approved in the state Legislature last week, qualified noncitizens would be eligible to be appointed to such local boards as planning commissions and state boards that include the Fair Political Practices Commission, the Contractors State License Board and the Board of Registered Nursing.
The goal is to allow people from different backgrounds an opportunity to serve the communities in which they live, sharing different perspectives that contribute to civic engagement.
But set against a national backdrop of divisiveness surrounding immigration issues, the law predictably has stirred the pot.
The legislation, SB174, billed as the first of its kind in the country, angers many conservative residents who describe it as symbolic slap to legal citizens. But it pleases others who argue that immigrants, regardless of their legal status, contribute to the state and have something different to bring to the table.
“This bill gives all Californians the opportunity to contribute to the state in policy areas in which they are experts in,” said Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, author of the bill.
The law, if signed, would do one more thing: it would clean up a nineteenth century state law that defines who is a citizen, erasing language that exempts “the children of transient aliens” from legal status.
That old language, Lara pointed out, conflicts with the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment, which is controversial in some conservative quarters but is generally seen as a guarantee of citizenship to all people born or naturalized in the United States and its territories. Among court cases that addressed citizenship is an 1898 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that a child born in the United States of Chinese parents was a U.S. citizen. The new law, which passed both chambers of the Democrat-controlled state Legislature last week, amends a law written in 1872, Lara said.
“There was a time in this state when the children of Chinese immigrants, Japanese Americans, African Americans, Jewish Americans and Catholics were barred from full participation in our society,” Lara said in an e-mail.
“California has changed massively in the past 150 years, and it is time to turn the page on that era of exclusion and fear in California history.”
The bill follows a growing number of laws passed in recent years to protect all California residents, regardless of immigration status. These include laws that allow unauthorized immigrants to apply for driver licenses and professional licenses to practice certain jobs, such as as physicians, beauticians, real estate agents and others regulated by the state’s 40 licensing boards.
Current law mandates that to serve on the state’s civil boards and commissions, one must be a U.S. citizen, according to an Assembly Committee analysis of the bill.
Some cities, including Santa Ana, Riverside and West Covina, require that people wanting to serve on most local boards and commissions must be registered voters – and in nearly all cases only citizens can be registered voters. (San Francisco this November will allow for the first time non-citizens parent and guardians with children under 19 to vote in a School Board election.)
The bill would not force local cities to change their laws but it would remove automatic disqualifications that currently exist on state boards and commissions. “We hope cities will see the benefit of including diverse perspectives and voices,” a spokesman in Lara’s office said Thursday.
West Covina Councilman Mike Spence, whose council recently voted to officially oppose the Inclusion Act, said legal permanent residents and those in the country illegally already have a voice.
“Anyone can come in to any meeting and speak,” Spence said. “SB 174 is an attack on how we are governed. To allow individuals you can’t register to vote, and (who) can’t legally work, to govern those who can is an affront to affront to everyone of those that vote and work here.”
Claremont resident Robin Hvidston, who heads an anti-illegal immigration group called We the People Rising, went to Sacramento to protest the proposed law. “We believe our boards and commissions should be for citizens to run our government.”
In Huntington Park, officials didn’t wait for a new state law. In 2015, they changed a local ordinance to allow two unauthorized immigrants to participate in local commissions. Soon after, Julian Zatarain joined the city’s parks and recreation commission and Francisco Medina joined the health and education commission.
“It really provided an opportunity to get a different perspective on the commissions,” said Councilwoman Karen Macias, who was mayor at the time.
Zatarain and Medina, both long-time volunteers in the city, forego the stipends fellow commissioners are paid.
Lara’s bill would allow people to be paid and reimbursed for expenses, unless prohibited by federal law. Only those with work permits, including people who have a temporary deferment from deportation status, would be eligible for the stipends and reimbursements, Lara told colleagues during a committee hearing.
California is home to the largest concentration of unauthorized immigrants in the country: more than 2 million. It’s also home to a large number of non-citizens who are legally present: more than 2.5 million, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.
One of the residents who arrived illegally as a teen with her family is Lizbeth Mateo, now a 34-year-old Los Angeles-area immigration attorney. Earlier this year, Mateo became the first unauthorized resident to be named to a statewide advisory post in California, a committee to help students from lower income communities attend college. Mateo, who remains an unauthorized immigrant, was appointed to an advisory board, which is legal under current law, said a spokesperson for Lara.
Mateo said she hopes Lara’s bill paves the way for more people like her to “have a seat at the table” and contribute toward innovative solutions in communities.
“It’s a good step, not just symbolically.”
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