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Governor Newsom Takes Cue From Biden in Backtracking on Immigration Policy

Policy makers from the federal, state and local levels must use their power to defend immigrant communities.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom attends an event with fellow governors in the East Room of the White House on February 23, 2024, in Washington, D.C.

California has a proud history of standing up for immigrants. During Donald Trump’s presidency, California defended its residents against dangerous anti-immigrant policies. In recent years, the state passed landmark legislation that allows California’s immigrants to access food assistance and health care. California was also the first state to dedicate public investments to immigration legal services, providing crucial legal support to immigrants seeking citizenship or other legal immigration relief, as well as those at risk of deportation.

Now, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recently announced a May revision to the state’s proposed budget — currently under consideration by the state legislature — jeopardizes California’s investments in immigration legal services and diminishes the state’s legacy of protecting immigrants.

Since 2015, tens of thousands of Californians have accessed life-changing legal support through the state’s immigration legal services programs. Studies by University of California Los Angeles School of Law faculty show that immigrants with legal representation are 15 times more likely to seek the relief from deportation that the law allows, and five-and-a-half times more likely to obtain that relief. But what’s at stake goes beyond applying the law correctly. The impact of legal representation extends far beyond the courtroom: Greater access to immigration legal services means more people are able to stay in their communities and support their families.

California’s past leadership has allowed more people access to immigration legal services than ever before. Still, many Californians struggle to find legal assistance. Nonprofit legal service providers simply don’t have enough capacity to serve all those who need help. Additionally, immigration judges limit the time people have to find a lawyer. This leaves immigrants with three options: 1) wait to see if they can get off long nonprofit waitlists; 2) pay for private counsel, which costs more than many have; or 3) represent themselves as they navigate the complex web of immigration law. Most are forced into the last option.

This reality calls for the expansion of access to state-funded legal services. Instead, Governor Newsom has proposed a $15.2 million cut in funding for immigration legal services programs that support and protect thousands of Californians each year.

This cut would eliminate the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) Immigration Legal Services Programs, which provides free legal support to thousands of California families by helping them access work permits, deportation protections and legal representation in court. It would also slash funding for the California State University (CSU) Immigration Legal Services Project, which provides free immigration legal services to thousands of CSU students, staff, alumni, faculty and family members every year. Lastly, Governor Newsom’s proposal would gut the Children’s Holistic Immigration Representation Project (CHIRP), which provides holistic legal representation and support services to hundreds of unaccompanied children facing deportation across California. The devastating $17.8 million proposed cut to CHIRP would force the program to discontinue.

These cuts back track on the governor’s commitment to making California a state where immigrants, their families, the businesses where they work, and the places where they worship can thrive and contribute to society in the many ways that California has long recognized. These cuts would abandon California’s leadership in advancing equity through inclusive and fair policies. This past week, the California Assembly and Senate pushed back by rejecting the proposed cuts to the TPS and CSU immigration legal services programs — but not CHIRP — in their joint budget proposals. The legislature and governor now have until June 15 to negotiate over the final state budget, and the fate of these crucial programs.

The governor cites California’s budget deficit as his rationale for the proposed cuts. But what does it say about California when these crucial programs that serve immigrants are first on the chopping block?

These proposed cuts are not happening in a vacuum. California’s leaders are retreating in their support of immigration legal services in other ways, too. Most recently, the State Assembly Judiciary Committee seemed primed this past March to pass Assembly Bill 2031 — a bill that would have expanded access to state-funded legal support for all immigrants, by allowing funds to be used for interpreters and social services to help the most vulnerable, as well as by eliminating exclusions that prevent some people who have served their time in the criminal legal system from accessing immigration legal services. The committee didn’t receive a single letter of opposition ahead of the hearing, but the bill was sidelined by anxious legislators in an election year after a right-wing, anti-immigrant backlash online. Now, AB 2031 won’t move forward in the legislature this year.

Unfortunately, California’s leaders are not alone in reneging on promises to the immigrant community. In the run-up to the upcoming presidential election, immigrants have become a political scapegoat as both sides of the aisle sprint to the right on immigration. President Joe Biden’s sharp about-face on asylum by supporting a “shut down” of the U.S.-Mexico border when crossings reach a numerical threshold is just one example.

Immigrants are not political bargaining chips. Slashing funds and shutting down borders will cause immeasurable harm, including by leaving TPS holders, students and children without access to legal protection at a time when Donald Trump is threatening mass deportations if elected in November. Policy makers from the federal, state and local levels must use their power to defend our immigrant communities at this crucial moment, rather than run in the opposite direction.

We in California have an opportunity to send that message to our representatives loud and clear by preventing drastic cuts to programs that provide life-saving legal support to immigrants and their families. To protect our state’s legacy as a champion of immigrants, California must continue investing in effective immigration legal services programs — not divesting.

In April, we joined nearly 500 advocates gathered in the state capital in Sacramento as part of California’s Immigrant Day of Action. You can make a difference, too. With ongoing budget negotiations, Californians can write, call and email their legislators and ask them to: 1) reject the $15.2 million budget cut to Immigration Legal Services Programs, and 2) reinvest $17.8 million in CHIRP to ensure thousands of California children, students, workers and families can access immigration legal services this year and for years to come.

Legal services are, of course, one piece of a larger platform of policies needed to support the wellbeing of immigrants across the state. Advocates are also seeking expanded access to food, health care and unemployment benefits. California’s immigrants need and deserve equal access to these resources that will allow them to thrive.

In this moment of political turmoil, Californians have an important choice: Do we sit back, or do we take this opportunity to safeguard immigrants and our communities? Given this state’s proud history of looking out for all Californians, the choice seems clear.

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