California is challenging the historic status of American citizenship with measures to permit noncitizens to sit on juries and monitor polls for elections in which they cannot vote and to open the practice of law even to those here illegally. It is the leading edge of a national trend that includes granting drivers’ licenses and in-state tuition to illegal immigrants in some states and that suggests legal residency could evolve into an appealing option should immigration legislation fail to produce a path to citizenship. A new state law allows people like Sergio Garcia, brought to the United States illegally as a child, to become licensed lawyers. With 3.5 million noncitizens who are legal permanent residents in California, some view the changes as an acknowledgment of who is living here and the need to require some public service of them. But the new laws raise profound questions about which rights and responsibilities rightly belong to citizens over residents.
“What is more basic to our society than being able to judge your fellow citizens?” asked Jessica A. Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School, referring to jury service. “We’re absolutely going to the bedrock of things here and stretching what we used to think of as limits.”
One new state law allows legal permanent residents to monitor polls during elections, help translate instructions and offer other assistance to voting citizens. And immigrants who were brought into the country illegally by their parents will be able to practice law here, something no other states allow.
In many ways, the new measures underscore the lock Democrats have over the State Capitol, where they hold an overwhelming majority in both houses. Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, signed the poll worker legislation this month and has indicated his approval of the other bills. Many of the changes, including granting drivers’ licenses to unauthorized immigrants, passed with overwhelming support and the backing of several Republicans.