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Non-U.S. citizens could become police officers in California, if this bill passes

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

For years, police departments have been trying to diversify their ranks, trying to hire more officers who are not white and male. Today, the California State Senate voted to make it possible for police departments to hire people who are not U.S. citizens. NPR's Martin Kaste has more.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: U.S. citizenship has long been a presumed condition of employment for sworn police officers. Most states make it an explicit requirement. One of them is California. But now the majority Democrats in the state legislature are working to remove that condition. State Senator Nancy Skinner says she introduced the bill when she heard about police departments unable to hire non-citizens who were otherwise qualified.

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NANCY SKINNER: Given that we allow this same category of people to serve in the military, to serve in so many other professions, there's no reason to deny a person who is otherwise legally authorized to work from serving as a peace officer.

KASTE: The bill is aimed at non-citizens who have the legal right to work here, such as permanent residents who haven't naturalized or people who came illegally as children but now have work permission under the DACA program. The California Police Chiefs Association supports the change. Like chiefs across the country, they're struggling to find enough new recruits.

But some opponents doubt that this is really about staffing. The immigration restriction group Californians for Population Stabilization calls this an effort to, quote, "blur the lines between citizens and non-citizens." Others oppose the bill on philosophical grounds - for instance, Republican State Senator Rosilicie Ochoa Bogh.

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ROSILICIE OCHOA BOGH: There's a reason why we - there's certain spaces that we require people to be 18 years old or 21 years old, U.S. citizens and so forth. And that's because when you take that oath to become a citizen of this country, you're swearing allegiance to this country and what it stands for.

KASTE: But during the debate today on the Senate floor, Democrat Sydney Kamlager called it hypocrisy to celebrate diversity while insisting that only citizens can be police.

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SYDNEY KAMLAGER: And I would just like to remind my colleagues that it was full-blooded American citizens who stormed the Capitol on January 6 and tried to overthrow the government.

KASTE: The bill passed 29-8 and now goes to the California Assembly.

Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.