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California Wakes Up to State Sovereignty; Still Dreaming

September 13, 2017
Panorama of Golden Gate Bridge, taken from Angel Island, the West Coast's original naturalization site.

It was only a matter of time before progressives caught on to states rights. Or, rather, it was only a matter of time, plus a Donald Trump presidency and Republican majorities in Congress. Zócalo Public Square columnist Joe Mathews recently penned an op-ed in the SF Chronicle titled, “In great American tradition, let California take undocumented immigrants.” I won’t assume he speaks for all Californians when he refers to federalism as a “great American tradition,” but this is still a welcome turn of events.

The debate over ending Deferred Action (read: deportation) for Childhood Arrivals could hasten a political realignment that bends California majorities towards support for local, or at least regional, solutions. Mathews proposes an alternative “California resident” status – not quite U.S. citizenship (which California can’t grant), but a step towards integration for immigrant children, raised in California, whose national identity and true citizenship differ. Maybe, Mathews suggests, the best way to resolve the discrepancy is to make “Californian” into something more like a nationality – a legal relationship between non-citizen residents and state government. This would imply greater sovereignty for California and, in turn, for other states seeking to reclaim powers delegated to them by the 10th amendment.

Mathews favorably quotes a researcher with the California Freedom Coalition, whose goal is a nothing short of a new nation of California. CFC might not be proposing the right route, or the right coalition, but Californians are clearly eager to lead on climate change, health care, education and technology. They rightly (in my view) consider immigrants to be assets, and are willing to invest in helping them belong here, “with the rights and responsibilities that entails.” More direct leadership would likely humble some progressive pipe dreams, like the transition to an all-renewable economy, or universal health care and higher ed. But maybe – just maybe – Californians could rise to the challenge if they temper their faith in human progress with realism, and their realism with faith.

Although our original naturalization policy was surprisingly liberal [1], there are good reasons to preserve a national identity through uniform citizenship requirements. Free movement of people among states is one of the reasons that the Constitution grants Congress authority over naturalization policy. Mathews deals with the potential spillover effects of California’s residency experiment by suggesting that Federal Government be required to deport undocumented residents arrested outside of California back to the Golden State. And indeed, the Constitution does not grant federal government authority over resident aliens in the states. This became a source of heated disagreement between President John Adams and James Madison. [2] Madison argued that the Adams’ Alien Act (allowing imprisonment and deportation of non-citizens deemed dangerous) violated due process rights of “alien friends.” Thus, Mathews’ idea sounds good in theory, and may have backing from the Father of the Constitution himself.

However, in a world governed by political compromise, states in stricter compliance with federal immigration law would need to be appeased on some dimension. Here, I wonder whether progressives could stomach the political price of federalism – namely, letting other states do as they please, even when it goes against our “”Enlightened Californian Sensibilities.”” If Mathews and the rest of us Californios could humble ourselves just a bit, we might be able to make some real progress.


[1] The Founders’ Immigration Policy, by Alex Nowrasteh, The Huffington Post Blog, 3/28/2012

[2] James Madison and the First American Immigration Crisis, by Mike Maharrey, The Tenth Amendment Center


P.S. I welcome your feedback in the comments. This is the first post to this blog in almost a year, and my first post in more than three years. I’m curious to get a sense of who is still reading.

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