By Amy Isackson
All eyes in the immigration debate are trained on California, where the state Legislature is poised to pass a bill that restricts how local and state law enforcement authorities cooperate with federal immigration agents. If approved, the Trust Act would make California the first state in the country to enact a law that limits police to holding only serious and violent criminals for review by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
San Francisco Assemblyman Tom Ammiano wrote the Trust Act to rein in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement program called Secure Communities. Under the program, ICE agents review the fingerprints of everyone that local police arrest. ICE then asks local authorities to place a 48-hour hold on the people federal agents find to be in violation of immigration laws so ICE can pick them up and, frequently, deport them.
Federal officials have said the Secure Communities program is a way to rid the country of what they call the “worst of the worst”: undocumented immigrants convicted of serious crimes.
But Ammiano says ICE agents have strayed far afield. “Basically, they were fingerprinting without due process, gathering people up and then deporting them. If you had a traffic violation, you were detained and deported. “
Since its inception in 2008, Secure Communities has led to the deportation of 198,000 people, only a quarter of whom are considered serious offenders. In 2011, the governors of New York, Massachusetts and Illinois were so concerned by the number of non-criminals and low-level offenders netted by the Secure Communities program, they told ICE that they would no longer participate. San Francisco’s Ammiano also wanted to get California out of the program and wrote the first version of the Trust Act to allow localities to opt out. However, ICE squashed the backlash by declaring that the Secure Communities program was mandatory.
Enter the Trust Act version 2.0. This version would shift the Secure Communities program’s focus back to the worst of the worst. Under the bill, instead of holding everyone arrested, local authorities would honor ICE’s requests only for those convicted of serious or violent felonies.
Not everyone agrees with this approach.
California State Senator Joel Anderson (R-San Diego) is vice chair of the Senate Pubic Safety Committee. He thinks that undocumented immigrants who commit any crime should be deported.
“My district is riddled with border crimes,” he says. “People come across the border all of the time to commit crimes. So our sensitivities are much greater, so when an assemblyman runs a bill that says its OK, we’re going to turn a blind eye to victimizing Californians, that just doesn’t pass mustard [sic].”
In fact, research shows that immigrants are not associated with higher rates of criminality. Crime rates have dropped dramatically in California and San Diego in recent years.
The Trust Act hinges on the belief that ICE’s immigration hold requests are not compulsory and that local law enforcement can choose to honor them or not.
Curtis Hill, the California Sheriff’s Association legislative analyst, says his understanding is that the holds are mandatory. He contends that the Trust Act would make local law enforcement choose between enforcing state law or federal law.
“Sheriffs, with this bill, are going to be in the middle of it. And they’re not only opening themselves but their taxpayers in their communities to litigation.”
However, in documents obtained by law schools and immigrants rights groups through the Freedom of Information Act, ICE officials have said that the holds are optional.
Angela Chan, who’s a staff attorney with the Asian Law Caucus, says a federal court in Indiana also held that honoring requests for detainment is optional. And then, she says, there’s the Tenth Amendment to the constitution, which” basically says the federal government can’t commandeer the localities and states to do their job for them,” says Chan.
ICE will not comment on California’s pending Trust Act. A spokeswoman sent a statement saying the federal government alone determines who is a priority for deportation. The federal agency recently tweaked Secure Communities to exclude people who commit minor traffic violations.
At least 15 municipalities and a handful of states are considering reigning in Secure Communities like the Trust Act would. Connecticut, Washington D.C., Santa Clara and Cook County, Illinois already have.
In addition to concern about the Secure Communities program’s mission stray, many lawmakers also worry about the program’s cost. For example, a recent study by the American Civil Liberties Union tabulates that on any given day, 2000 inmates in Los Angeles jails are there because of ICE immigration holds. According to the documents obtained recently via FOIA, ICE does not reimburse states and cities for Secure Communities.
Sarahi Uribe, with the National Day Labor Organizing Network, says California passing the Trust Act would be a game changer.
“It is a big state, and it has the highest number of deportations in the program. So, if California is willing to pass something, then it makes it easier for all of these other places across the country to do the same.”
Governor Jerry Brown’s office won’t say if he will sign the bill, but both proponents and opponents think he will. Another thing both sides agree on is that federal immigration reform would be a better solution.