California State Immigration Laws

Welcome to FindLaw's coverage of existing California legislation and rules related to individuals' immigration status. However, it is important to be aware of the relationship and tension between state and federal law when it comes to subjects involving immigration. Below you will find information on California regarding applicable immigration checks by law enforcement, educational institutions, and employers, as well as the existence of E-Verify requirements, restrictions on public benefits based on an individual's immigration status, and more.

California "Sanctuary State" Law

Considered the most widespread state protections for undocumented immigrants, Senate Bill 54 took effect on January 1, 2018. The law (California Values Act) builds on previous "sanctuary" policies with regard to assisting federal immigration efforts -- and extends them -- by establishing statewide non-cooperative policies between state law enforcement officials and federal immigration authorities.

Law Enforcement and Immigration in California

California prohibits state or local law enforcement agencies from the following action:

  • Detaining an individual on a hold request from the federal government unless there is a felony or a warrant;
  • Transferring undocumented immigrants into federal custody unless they've been convicted in the last 15 years of a crime that is one of the listed offenses on California's Trust Act or the individual is a registered sex offender;
  • Asking about a person's immigration status or sharing any information with federal immigration authorities that is not available to the general public.

However, under a federal program, all individuals arrested are fingerprinted and run through a database which checks their immigration status.

Employment Checks

Under federal law, employers must verify prospective employees' authorization to work in the United States. For more information, refer to federal employment eligibility verification rules and the requirements for Form I-9.

Legislation implemented in 2012 made it easier for farm workers, even those who are undocumented, to join labor unions and advocate for workers' rights.

California E-Verify Law

While a number of other states require the use of E-Verify, recent legislation signed into law in California instead restricts the use of E-Verify in the state. Under its legislation, California has prohibited municipalities, counties, and other state government entities from passing mandatory E-Verify ordinances that apply to private employers. As a result, private employers in California are not required to use E-Verify, although they remain free to do so voluntarily.

Driver's License/ID Requirements

California law requires that every applicant for an original state ID card and/or driver license to show verification of birth date and proof of legal presence within the United States. This can be done via a number of identifying documents, such as a Social Security Card, and limits access to driver's licenses for illegal immigrants. Although legislation has been raised and debated in California that would allow access to driver's licenses to individuals without regard to a person's immigration status, currently no such laws exist in the state.

Public Benefits Restrictions

Under federal law, illegal immigrants are prohibited from receiving public benefits, although they are allowed to receive emergency services, health care, and other programs that have been identified as "necessary to protect life and safety." California makes a number of programs available to individuals irrespective of their immigration status, with most involving access to various aspects of health care.

Education and Immigrants in California

Unlike some states, which have made legislative efforts to limit illegal immigrant access to in-state tuition rates, California passed the DREAM Act, which explicitly permits current and prospective students who are undocumented immigrants to pay the same tuition that in-state legal residents enjoy at public universities. Related legislation will allow these same students who qualify for in-state tuition rates to apply for and receive financial aid benefits. Also, test sponsors of graduate exams must provide alternative means of proving identification.

Voter ID Rules

Federal law sets baseline registration and ID requirements for elections involving federal offices, and California election law mirrors these requirements, requiring voters to provide ID at the polls in some cases. Specifically, new voters who are registering and those who are re-registering must provide identifying information on their registration form (last four digits of SSN or Driver's License #). If they do not have either of these, they will have to establish proof of identity at the polling booth via a state issued ID or one of the other acceptable forms of identification. A voter who doesn't provide this sort of identification, can still vote but only on a provisional basis, which requires identification verification within days of voting.

Housing Ordinances and Immigration

California does not prohibit the rental or provision of housing to illegal immigrants. However, there have been increasing efforts at the local level across the country to bar rentals to individuals residing in the country illegally. Such ordinances restricting access to housing typically face challenges in court, with widely varying results.

Confused About California Immigration Policy? Contact an Attorney Today

Although immigration law is within federal jurisdiction, certain California laws and policies have significant impact on immigrants living in the Golden State. For example, California as a whole is considered a "sanctuary" for undocumented immigrants, although this may conflict with federal policies. Don't lose sleep over your immigration questions, get help from an immigration law attorney today.

Next Steps

Contact a qualified immigration attorney to help you get the best results possible.