SACRAMENTO — On a day when immigrant-rights activists nationwide rallied for action from Washington, Gov. Jerry Brown put California at the vanguard of change, signing sweeping laws aimed at speeding the assimilation of those in the country illegally.
Brown signed eight bills Saturday, including one prohibiting local law enforcement officials from detaining immigrants longer than necessary for minor crimes so that federal immigration authorities can take custody of them.
Under the so-called Trust Act, immigrants in this country illegally would have to be charged with or convicted of a serious offense to be eligible for a 48-hour hold and transfer to U.S. immigration authorities for possible deportation.
The measure is the second milestone immigration bill signed by the governor in three days. On Thursday, he approved a measure allowing immigrants in the country illegally to receive California driver’s licenses.
“While Washington waffles on immigration, California’s forging ahead,” Brown said. “I’m not waiting.”
Other bills signed Saturday will allow people in the country illegally to be licensed as lawyers, impose restrictions on those who charge a fee to help immigrants gain legal status, and make it a crime for employers to “induce fear” by threatening to report someone’s immigration status.
Immigrant-rights activists who were rallying for an end to gridlock in Washington on reform hailed Brown’s actions. The California Immigrant Policy Center on Saturday declared 2013 the “year of the immigrant” in California.
“Today marks the dawn of a new era in California’s immigrant communities,” said Reshma Shamasunder, the center’s executive director.
Brown told The Times recently that he wanted to move the state forward on issues that could change the national debate. His actions will probably affect discussions on immigration throughout the country, said John J. Pitney Jr., a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College.
“Advocates of more immigration laws are going to be watching California very closely, and if these laws work out well they will be able to use the state as Exhibit A in their case for national legislation,” Pitney said.
Some supporters of strict enforcement of immigration laws said Brown’s bill signings will be devastating for California.
“It’s sending the wrong message to the world,” said Robin Hvidston of Claremont, executive director of We the People Rising. “This is a message to the global community to come to the state of California illegally and you will get documentation and protection.”
Many law enforcement agencies, including those in Los Angeles, Santa Clara and San Francisco counties, already have adopted policies similar to those in the Trust Act. And immigration officials, who are not subject to the state law, can still detain and deport people following federal guidelines.
But Angela Chan of the Asian Americans Advancing Justice - Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco said the signing of the statewide law is “more than symbolic.”
She predicted it would prevent the detention of up to 20,000 immigrants a year by federal authorities mostly in rural parts of the state.
After Brown vetoed a bill similar to the Trust Act last year, Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) changed his proposal to address the concerns of some law enforcement officials.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca opposed last year’s bill, but last December he announced he would no longer comply with federal requests to detain people suspected of being in the country illegally who are arrested for low-level crimes.
Later that month, the Obama administration announced it would no longer target those arrested for minor crimes for deportation.
Baca supports the bill signed Saturday as a “practical, reasonable approach” to the issue, said spokesman Steve Whitmore.
Ammiano’s AB 4 prohibits a law enforcement official from detaining an individual on the basis of a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement hold after that person becomes eligible for release, unless he or she has been charged with or convicted of certain crimes, including violent felonies.
Prior convictions for certain felonies, including placement on the state’s sex offender or arson registries, would also allow the suspect to be held. Crimes that would not be considered serious enough to trigger the hold include simple possession of marijuana and selling food on the street without a permit.
Ammiano introduced the bill to counter the federal Secure Communities program, which was created to deport dangerous criminals. But the assemblyman said the program was used to deport nearly 100,000 Californians, the vast majority of whom, he said, were not serious offenders.
“With the Trust Act, Gov. Brown is recognizing the importance of immigrants to the economy, culture and vitality of the entire state,” Ammiano said.
The bill is still opposed by the California State Sheriffs Assn. and the California District Attorneys Assn.
Mark Zahner, chief executive for the prosecutors group, said it was disappointed the bill was signed.
The district attorneys opposed the measure because “it didn’t foster cooperation between federal and state officers.” He also said there were questions about whether the measure could be preempted by federal immigration law.
Word of the governor’s action spread quickly through the several thousand marchers pressing for immigration reform at a rally in Hollywood — one of many held in cities around the nation Saturday.
“This is exactly what we’re looking for,” Jorge Garavito, 22, of Rialto shouted over the roars of marchers on Vine Street. “The governor is recognizing the power of the people, and that this is what the people want.”
“Families no longer have to live in fear,” said marcher and union leader Oscar Valladares, 34. “Children will know that at the end of the day, they’re going to see their parents.”
Two measures signed Saturday target employers who retaliate against employees by threatening to report immigration law violations. Assemblyman Kevin Mullin (D-South San Francisco) said he introduced AB 524 to prevent employers from using the reporting threat to stop workers from complaining about workplace abuses, unsafe working conditions and wage theft.
Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) addressed the same issue with SB 666, under which an employer’s business license could be suspended or revoked for retaliation against workers based on immigration status.
The governor also signed a bill by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) that removes immigration status as a barrier to becoming licensed as an attorney for any applicant who has passed the state bar exam.
Gonzalez introduced AB 1024 in response to a case pending before the California Supreme Court involving Sergio C. Garcia, who passed the bar exam and met all other requirements but is in the country illegally.
The bill “completes the promise we’ve made,” Gonzalez said, to immigrants “who have worked hard, studied hard, passed the bar exam and now just want the right to make a living for themselves as an attorney.”
Times staff writers Matt Stevens and Cindy Chang in Los Angeles and Melanie Mason in Sacramento contributed to this report.