OPINION: SB 174 is only the beginning for U.S. immigrant rights


Amid the chaos of national politics last summer, California, in a more hopeful political moment, passed Senate Bill 174, a law that will allow noncitizen immigrants to hold certain public offices. This is a step in the right direction, but immigrant oppression is reaching a fever pitch, and this small step to empower immigrants will hardly provide substantial pressure on right-wing, anti-immigrant policy.

Currently, noncitizens cannot vote in federal elections, and cannot hold any office federally or in California beyond public boards and commissions. As such, their political power is very limited. To push for pro-immigration policy, noncitizens are forced to rely on citizens to altruistically take on their interests or they must take part in direct action to influence their lawmakers.

The former hardly seems likely, at least in the short term, under the current anti-immigrant leadership at the national level. In fact, the trend of immigration policy is already a massive human rights issue.

The Occupy ICE movement made encouraging progress through direct political action — for example, the movement in Portland forced an ICE building to close for over a week in June — but so far hasn’t shown sustained growth or meaningful coverage in the press. Most advancements occurred in June and July, and police have hardly been shy about arresting ICE protesters. Popular protests like Occupy ICE should be commended and encouraged, but it’s also important that every group in the country has more formal political leverage. Considering noncitizens cannot hold any office responsible for creating policy, we must start a dialogue about incorporating them more formally into our democracy.

Underlying the struggle for immigrant rights is the reality that noncitizens’ fates in America largely depends on citizens adopting their interests and giving them a political voice. Because their struggle is not necessarily intertwined with most citizens’ daily lives, interest seems to spike and die out according to the news cycle. Just over a month ago, the public looked shaken and horrified that our country’s institutions appeared hateful toward immigrants. But now, updates on child separation are no longer headline news. Though the courageous efforts of activists, lawyers and social workers shouldn’t be overlooked, many cries for solidarity with noncitizens were short-lived.

It’s also important to highlight the long trend of immigrant oppression before the Trump administration; The zero tolerance policy didn’t appear out of nowhere. We like to imagine that Democrats take a more sympathetic stance toward undocumented communities, but should not forget that former president Barack Obama deported more people than any other president and normalized detention facilities as a way of dealing with undocumented immigrants, particularly during the influx of unauthorized border crossing in 2014.

Blaming Trump as the source of all our ails can make us forget about the structural issues contributing to the daily struggles of immigrants. Still, family separation is unique to the Trump presidency and the administration’s racist policies pose a mounting threat to all minorities, especially noncitizens.

SB 174 is a nice nod to the social value of noncitizens, but in reality the law will do very little to bolster the human rights of immigrants. California, and the country at large, needs more comprehensive change. Noncitizens deserve more than just a slight acknowledgment.

This issue is particularly relevant to USC students, as many students come from different countries but plan on starting a life in the United States. Between 2004 and 2016, about 1.5 million college graduates sought out and received authorization to remain in the U.S. to begin their careers through the federal government’s Optional Practical Training program. So many students here represent a valuable part of society, one that pays taxes and plays an integral role in the economy. This indispensable demographic, though they are not naturalized citizens, deserve a voice in the legislative process.

There’s a reason that the American right wing focuses so much on voter fraud and stokes fears about undocumented voters: Its agenda poses a huge threat to noncitizens, whose political empowerment could threaten Republican power. That’s why it’s so important to resist such a hateful agenda. Noncitizens share this country and deserve an equal political position to anyone else.

A Gallup poll recently reported that 75 percent of the country view immigration as a good thing. The right wing, including Trump, does not truly represent a majority of the country. It doesn’t represent the people who are systematically disenfranchised, who feel the brunt of discriminative policy without playing a role in its creation. America should look to make a democracy that actually includes the most vulnerable people in the country. While the new senate bill is an admirable move to enhance our country’s democracy, we must consider new ways to entrench pro-immigrant voices into our political structures.