If Gov. Jerry Brown signs legislation known as the Trust Act, federal immigration authorities will have a somewhat harder time taking custody of people in local jails who are suspected of being in the country illegally.
The measure, which would prohibit local jailers from holding most arrestees for an additional 48 hours before federal authorities arrive, is not expected to put a large dent in the number of deportations.
But with a revamp of immigration laws stalled in Washington, immigrant rights advocates hope to send a message that most deportation should end. Along with a bill granting driver’s licenses to more immigrants who are in the country illegally, the Trust Act would cement California’s position as one of the states most hospitable to such immigrants.
“I think the Trust Act will stand for the proposition that we need to stop criminalizing innocent immigrants,” said Chris Newman, legal director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, which lobbied for the bill.
Last year, Brown vetoed a different version of the Trust Act. Since then, his staff has worked with the bill’s supporters to broaden the list of exceptions that would still subject immigrants to the 48-hour federal holds. The current version, AB 4, would allow holds on those convicted of offenses such as child abuse, burglary and embezzlement, as well as those with serious or violent felony convictions.
Brown has indicated that he would sign the driver’s license bill, but he has not sent any signals on the Trust Act.
“We don’t have any promises, but we think this is a bill he will be comfortable signing,” said Carlos Alcala, communications director for the bill’s author, Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco).
The California State Sheriffs’ Assn. remains opposed to the bill. Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern, the association’s president, said local law enforcement should defer to federal authorities on immigration matters.
“If they have a reason to detain somebody for homeland security, it’s a risk to the public if the local detention facility releases that person without honoring that detention,” Ahern said.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca has done an about-face on the Trust Act. A year ago, he threatened to defy the measure if it passed.
But last December, Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris issued a legal opinion that complying with the federal detention requests was discretionary, not mandatory. In response, Baca said he would no longer honor the holds for people without significant criminal records.
L.A. Police Chief Charlie Beck also refuses to comply with federal detention requests for low-level arrestees. Baca spokesman Steve Whitmore said the sheriff is in favor of the Trust Act version currently on the governor’s desk.
“It looks like a sensible and practical compromise, with all things considered. The sheriff supports the governor. He feels the Trust Act is the best it’s ever been,” Whitmore said.
In the absence of action from Congress, local governments continue to be a battleground for immigration enforcement. California and other liberal strongholds are trying to reduce cooperation with federal authorities at the same time that states such as Arizona and Alabama are pushing in the other direction.
Last month in Louisiana, the Orleans Parish sheriff announced he would not comply with federal detention holds in most cases. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors is considering an ordinance that would place a blanket prohibition on federal immigration holds, including those involving convicted felons.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials would not comment directly on the Trust Act. In a written statement, the agency said it prioritized the deportation of those who threaten public safety or who have repeatedly violated immigration laws.
“The identification and removal of criminal offenders is ICE’s highest priority, and over the past 31/2 years, ICE has been dedicated to implementing smart, effective reforms to the immigration system that allow it to focus its resources on priority individuals,” the agency said.
Under federal policy, ICE may issue the 48-hour holds when immigrants have been convicted or charged with felonies or certain other crimes. Holds will not be issued for those charged with misdemeanors, except for immigrants who have previously been deported or who are considered a threat to national security, according to the policy.
In fiscal year 2012, a record 409,849 people were deported, according to ICE statistics, compared with 291,060 in 2007.
About 55% of the 2012 deportees were convicted of felonies or misdemeanors, and many of the rest had previous immigration violations.
One in five came to the attention of immigration authorities through a program called Secure Communities, in which the fingerprints of all individuals booked at local jails are run through federal immigration databases. If there is a match, ICE may request that local law enforcement hold the person for an extra 48 hours.
Absent 48-hour holds, ICE will still be able to take custody of immigrants.
“What impact does it have?” asked Bill Ong Hing, a professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law. “My answer is it sends a message, but it’s true, really the big debate is over the program itself that triggers the detainers; and if ICE really wants the folks, they can come get them earlier.”