Immigration

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A California criminal conviction can weigh heavily on those individuals who are not yet United States citizens. Certain kinds of criminal convictions can lead to deportation- regardless of how long that person has resided in the United States. There are also “inadmissible crimes” that will restrict an immigrant from re-entering the country after leaving, becoming a U.S. citizen, or deny the application for permanent residency. It is important for non-citizens to acquire an experienced attorney that is both involved in criminal defense and immigration; our teams of attorneys provide this distinct dual representation.

California laws

In California, Democratic legislators approved a number of new laws in 2014 that will benefit people living in the state illegally.

One of the most prominent laws to take effect Jan. 1 was adopted last year: AB60. Beginning Friday, unauthorized residents in California can apply for a driver’s license. Already, several local DMV offices are jammed up 90 days out for appointments as the first of an estimated 1.4 million eligible new drivers begin the process to get their new licenses.

To help these new drivers secure the auto insurance that will be required when they register their cars, legislators passed another law this year to allow unauthorized immigrants for the first time to buy insurance through the California Low Cost Auto Insurance program.

Other laws that will impact undocumented immigrants include:

• College students who entered the country illegally or stayed beyond their visa expiration will now have access to the same loan opportunities as other students. This comes under state legislation endorsed by California’s two public university systems. The California DREAM loan program is expected to make loans available to about 2,500 students.

• Nonprofits that offer aid to undocumented immigrant children will be able to tap into $3 million in legal aid to assist the minors as they go through the legal system;

• To reduce deportations of legal immigrants who are not yet citizens and who are convicted of misdemeanors, the maximum possible misdemeanor sentence in California was reduced by one day, from one year to 364 days.

What’s ahead

One significant law passed in 2014 that won’t take effect until 2016 will allow all Californians, regardless of immigration status, to apply for a professional license, including doctors, nurses, beauticians, pharmacists, accountants, real estate agents and landscapers.

The new law will require the state’s licensing boards to accept federal individual taxpayer identification numbers in lieu of Social Security identifications. (The legislation expands on a 2013 California law that allows the California Supreme Court to approve law licenses to qualified individuals, regardless of immigration status.)

Opponents said the professional licensing law violates federal law. Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, who sponsored the bill, counters that federal law prohibits unauthorized immigrants to be employees but that they can start businesses or work as independent contractors.

“This is about doing right by those individuals who have studied, sacrificed and mastered their professions, but are unable to practice because of their immigration status,” said Lara, calling the bill the first of its kind in the nation.

“Our state is stronger when we have qualified, highly skilled workers contributing their talents and tax dollars to advancing our economy,” Lara said in a recent statement.

Robin Hvidston, of the Claremont-based We the People Rising, has a different take.

It “will encourage more job seekers to enter the California job market to compete with U.S. citizens for scarce jobs. The theme has oftentimes been that we must have an illegal workforce as American citizens will not do those jobs. But now professional licensing will be made available to those unlawfully present – a very bad development for the U.S. worker,” said Hvidston, whose group lobbies against illegal immigration.

For both immigration rights advocates and opponents, their battle in 2015 continues on a state level. In D.C., a GOP-controlled Congress in the coming year is unlikely to produce the immigration reform packages debated in recent years.

For California, some of the focus will now turn to health care coverage for all, a proposed Office for New Americans and “ensuring that our state really invests in implementation” of Obama’s plans, said Villela, of CHIRLA.

Lara has two bills in the pipeline.

One would expand opportunities for health care coverage to everyone in the state, regardless of their immigration status. (The federal Affordable Care Act specifically excludes people living in the country illegally from insurance coverage through health care exchanges such as Covered California.)

And a second bill would create a California Office for New Americans to help the state’s 2.6 million undocumented immigrants integrate into the state and coordinate efforts to provide education, fraud prevention services, assistance, legal services, English instruction and civics classes to the largest undocumented population in the country. Several states, including Nevada and Washington, have similar offices, Villela said.

“Our state pushed the envelope this year,” Villela said. “And I hope it will continue to push the envelope next year.”

Contact the writer: 714-796-7829 and rkopetman@ocregister.com