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California Legislature

Controversial 'sanctuary state' bill clears major hurdle after hours of debate

Members of the Service Employees International Union at the state Capitol. (Jazmine Ulloa/Los Angeles Times)
Members of the Service Employees International Union at the state Capitol. (Jazmine Ulloa/Los Angeles Times)

After dozens of advocates and lawyers descended upon the state Capitol to lobby in support of bills to protect immigrants, the state Senate on Monday passed legislation that would provide lawyers for immigrants facing deportation and limit the cooperation between local and state law enforcement agencies with federal immigration officials.

The Senate floor approval was the first major hurdle cleared for a legislative package of bills introduced by the majority party Democrats amid rancorous debate over the election of President Trump. The bills now head to the state Assembly for consideration. 

In hours-long debate, Democratic lawmakers argued the bills were vital to protect vulnerable immigrants from expanded deportation orders under the Trump administration. They pointed to the economic contributions of all immigrants to the state's economy, and they urged their colleagues to send a message against harmful national rhetoric stereotyping entire communities.

At the center of the legislative package is a so-called “sanctuary state” bill introduced by Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles). Senate Bill 54, which was approved with a 27-12 vote along party lines, would keep state and local law enforcement agencies from using resources to investigate, detain, report or arrest people for the purposes of immigration enforcement.

Speaking on the Senate floor, De León said new amendments to his legislation would allow local law enforcement agencies to participate in task forces and give U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement 60-day notices on the release of violent and serious felons.

The Trump administration’s threats against so-called sanctuary cities and “mass deportation strategies are based on the false premise that sanctuary cities are unsafe,” he told lawmakers.

Outside the Senate chambers after the vote, members of the Service Employees International Union clapped and chanted “Sí, se puede." De León said the time had come for lawmakers to “roll up their sleeves” and get the measure approved in the Assembly. The latest changes to his bill removed an emergency clause that would have required a two-thirds vote of approval in both chambers.

“Will he strike back? We don’t know,” the Senate leader told reporters when asked how he thought President Trump would respond to his bill. “We hope not. He is the president of the greatest country in the world. It is not about retribution. It is about bringing the country together.”

On the Senate floor, state Sen. Ben Hueso (D-San Diego) said he had to make concessions in amendments to Senate Bill 6, which would create a $12-million legal defense program for immigrants facing deportation who do not have a violent felony on their records.

Hueso said he reduced the scope of the legislation given the limited resources to prioritize immigrants with children, immigrants with parents who are citizens, veterans and asylum seekers.

“This grants our friends, our families and our neighbors the same rights that are afforded to us,” Hueso said.

But Republican lawmakers were not persuaded. They argued the legislation shielded dangerous offenders and inappropriately limited cooperation among agencies at different levels of government.

Sen. Joel Anderson (R-San Diego), a staunch sanctuary state bill opponent, argued Democrats were trying to have it both ways.

“On one hand, we don’t want any federal immigration enforcement from any state agency,” he said. But on the other, he said, lawmakers wanted to use state money to defend people from federal immigration laws.

The only proposal to pass with unanimous, bipartisan support, with a 34-0 vote, was legislation introduced by Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) and coauthored by Anderson. It attempts to block the creation of a “Muslim registry,” another Trump proposal, by prohibiting state and local agencies from providing or disclosing religious affiliation information to the federal government.

"Collecting information early and often is wrong," Anderson said.

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