Earlier this week, with little fanfare, the Biden administration announced in the Federal Register that it would be rolling back one of the cruelest of Trump’s anti-immigrant proposals: namely, denying all mixed-status families—households where some members are US citizens and others are undocumented immigrants—access to public and subsidized housing.
Under Trump’s proposal, these families faced a Sophie’s Choice: Either kick out the undocumented member (usually a parent) and keep the home, or maintain the integrity of the family and end up on the streets.
For nearly three years, a coalition of immigrants rights and civil rights groups, the state of California, and many other states, have pushed back against this proposal. They argue that it would gratuitously lead to mass homelessness among already vulnerable families—roughly 100,000 people in mixed-status families were living in public or subsidized housing at the time of the proposal—and would harm at least as many US citizens, including upwards of 55,000 children, as it would undocumented adults.
At the time, California’s then–Attorney General Xavier Becerra called the ruling “unnecessary, inhumane, and un-American.” Now, his position is held as common sense within Biden administration circles, and, increasingly, in blue states around the country.
On the same day as the administration announced it would no longer follow Trump-era guidelines on housing access, New York state passed a more than $200 billion state budget. At the urging of a coalition of activists who have highlighted the plight faced by undocumented workers and immigrants excluded from social safety net and pandemic relief programs—some of whom have gone on hunger strike to push their case—it includes a $2.1 billion fund to provide benefits and safety net assistance to residents who have fallen through cracks in the federal system.
This means that New York is now joining California, Oregon, Washington and other states that have, during the pandemic, moved to expand their social safety nets to include the undocumented.
The willingness to countenance protections for the undocumented has been a long time coming. In 1994, California’s electorate, and its political leadership, were so hostile to undocumented immigrants that voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 187, barring those without legal status from every public service, including K-12 education. It was modeled on a similar law in Texas, passed in 1982 and subsequently deemed unconstitutional. Although the US Supreme Court eventually held California’s law to be unconstitutional as well, it set the bar nationwide for harsh anti-immigrant measures. Arizona followed suit several years later with a pair of notoriously tough laws making it far easier for law enforcement to stop, question, and demand immigration papers from anyone they deemed likely to be undocumented, and penalizing anyone who in any way helped undocumented residents remain in the country. Several other states also embraced tough anti-immigrant policies. And, of course, in 2016 Trump won the presidency while using crude anti-immigrant rhetoric as a cudgel.
But in California, 1994 represented the high-water mark for anti-immigrant politicking. In the years that followed, immigrants organized politically; and community activists, lawyers, progressive politicians, trade unions, universities, and other core opinion-shaping organizations, made immigrants’ rights a core part of their mission. By the early 2000s, public opinion in California was rapidly shifting on the issue, and by the 2010s the state was starting to pass a raft of protective legislation for undocumented immigrants—from the granting of driver’s licenses to DREAMER protections, a well as the charging of in-state college tuition to undocumented Californians attending the state university and University of California systems. When Trump became president, the state and its political leader promptly took the helm in marshaling opposition to his anti-immigrant agenda.
Before the pandemic hit, Governor Gavin Newsom had already used state funds to expand Medi-Cal access to undocumented children and young adults, and during the pandemic several legislators were readying bills to fund Medi-Cal expansion to cover all undocumented adults who were of low-enough income to qualify. Recent opinion polling on the issue shows that a large majority of all Californians—and an almost equally large majority of Californian voters—now support this policy change and believe that it would make the state as a whole healthier and safer. In fact, of all the demographic groups polled, only among registered Republicans did a higher percentage oppose the change than approve of it.
That two-thirds of Californians now support this policy shift is extraordinary: a state that only a generation ago didn’t want to allow undocumented children to receive an education is willing and eager to ensure that those children, now adults, receive the same access to health care as do other members of the community.
It’s a lesson for what could happen nationally over the coming years. We’ve seen hints of this change in the past week, with New York’s move to expand its safety net, and with Biden’s move to protect housing access for tens of thousands of mixed-status families around the country. In California, the political events of 1994 so infuriated activists that they organized and organized and organized their way to a political sea change up and down the West Coast. Nationally, it increasingly looks like Trump might well have unleashed the same forces for long-term structural reform.