California Discovers Federalism

It’s been called “federalism 2.0” — a move by states to buck the central government and try out their own policies in areas of the environment, immigration, drug policy, and criminal justice reform. California (for better or for worse) has been leading the charge on climate change issues, setting the pace for national vehicle emissions standards with its own stricter standards. But more recently, states have been particularly innovative on immigration, given the host of problems that stem from the Federal government’s failure to implement a comprehensive solution.



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Joe Mathews, a syndicated columnist and California editor for Zocalo Public Square, came up with a unique legal proposal during the debate over Deferred Action (read: deportation) for Childhood Arrivals: an alternative “California resident” status. While not quite U.S. citizenship (which California can’t grant), residency would be 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. Mathew specifically evoked the idea of federalism — referring to it as a “great American tradition” — much as Bob has been doing on this show for the past 10 years.

Is it Legal?

While the Constitution gives the Federal government jurisdiction over enforcing national immigration standards, there is no explicit prohibition on states taking action. As David Davenport of the Hoover Institution notes:

“Federalism incorporates the idea that the federal government is not the only player in our constitutional republic, because state and local governments also serve important roles. The 10th Amendment of the Constitution specifically reminds us that powers not delegated to the federal government are reserved to the states or the people.

With Republicans in charge of the White House, both houses of Congress and arguably the Supreme Court, Democrats are rediscovering states’ rights and local government powers, as the out-of-power party in Washington often does. And as usual, California is leading the way in flexing state and local power, notably:

On immigration — The nearly 20 sanctuary cities and counties in California refuse to support the enforcement of Washington’s immigration laws, charting their own course at the risk of some federal funding.”

Mathews joined the show to unpack his proposal, and explain how it would work. He and Bob discussed the broader failures of our immigration system, and work through the logistics of a more federalist approach if the Golden State were to lead the way.