State Sen. Ricardo Lara kicked off the new legislative season Monday by filing legislation to create a state agency for people who aren’t official Californians.
Called the California Office of New Americans, it would be designed specifically to be a hub to connect undocumented immigrants with the services they need. That might include English classes, directions for enrolling kids in school, help filling out citizenship papers and protection from attorneys reportedly defrauding immigrants. The agency appears to be modeled on New York state’s Office of New Americans.
Lara, D-Bell Gardens, said the office would specifically reach out to undocumented immigrants who generally fear government: “This is government being proactive, bringing them out of the shadows.”
This legislation comes straight from the heart. Lara’s parents were undocumented immigrants. But it also raises big questions that must be answered fully as this bill goes through the legislative process. First and foremost, how much will the agency cost and where will the money come from?
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Lara told reporters Monday that he is still working on the cost estimates, but said the office would be fully funded by private dollars and administered though the governor’s office. He said he already had talked with some foundations interested.
If a private foundation is able and willing to continuously pay for this office, that’s great. But is that really likely to happen if the program is operated out of the governor’s office? What guarantees would we have that this wouldn’t become another state-funded agency that would compete with other state agencies for a share of the state’s budget?
Lara says correctly that California has been a leader in immigrant rights. This state has been more than welcoming to immigrants, even those who are here without permission. California has pioneered pro-immigrant laws. Political leaders and advocates have demanded that Congress overhaul immigration law.
But it’s also a state that isn’t fully funding its obligations to existing Americans. The state’s per-pupil education funding is among the lowest in the country. We have essentially thrown out the master plan for public higher education while hiking the cost of attendance. We can’t afford to maintain our freeways the way they require and are systematically turning them into “feeways.” The state’s teacher retirement fund, CalSTRS, owes $80.4 billion more than it has assets to cover.
We can’t help but think that 120 legislators, each with district offices and eager aides, could provide many of these services to new immigrants, documented or not.
This is an important discussion for the Legislature to have when it returns in January, but it is one that must turn on the question of financial obligation.