The Trump administration has embarked on a stepped-up campaign to capture and deport immigrants living in the United States illegally, even if they've been here for a long time, have deep roots in the community and have been law-abiding and productive members of American society.
It's a mean-spirited, costly and unnecessary approach to illegal immigration that will divide families and destabilize communities at enormous cost to taxpayers, while providing little or no public benefit. California legislators are right to object, and to insist that state and local resources not be spent on helping the federal government in this misguided policy.
On the other hand, it is entirely reasonable — and in the public interest — for the federal government to deport immigrants living in the U.S. illegally who have committed serious or violent crimes. While state and local governments also should not be involved in enforcing that — it's not their job — they shouldn't obstruct it either.
Those are the sticky issues that have surrounded the drafting of SB 54, which some people call the "sanctuary state" bill. When first offered by Senate Pro-Tem Kevin de León, the bill put too many obstacles in the way of the federal government's ability to do its job properly. With a series of recent amendments, however, the bill has been improved and, with a couple more small changes, should be supported.
One of the big questions as the bill moved through the Senate (it's been approved there and is now before the Assembly) has been whether local jails and state prisons should have to honor administrative "detainer requests" from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. These detainers ask jails and prisons to hold immigrants suspected of being in the country illegally beyond the end of their sentences, until ICE agents arrive to pick them up. But a detainer request does not have the force of law behind it, and to continue to hold inmates without a court order, even though they are eligible for release, likely would violate their 4th Amendment rights, leaving local governments on the hook for civil damages. Federal authorities know this well — a federal magistrate in Oregon told them so in a 2014 decision.
Yet, in their sweaty fervor to oust those here illegally, Trump and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly seem perfectly happy to ignore the Constitution. SB 54 orders local jurisdictions not to comply with these detainer requests.
But would resistance to the president's agenda come at too high a cost? Trump already has threatened to withhold federal funds from jurisdictions that do not cooperate with his roundups. Luckily for California, there are court decisions that limit such coercive punitive steps, and any such move by Trump undoubtedly would land the policy in court. The state already is prepared for such fights — it pays the law firm of former U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder $25,000 a month just for such contingencies.
The amended SB 54 hews a pragmatic line by precluding local agencies — from schools to health agencies — from volunteering information to ICE about clients, students and others with whom they interact.
It also would keep school and other local government databases, including health services agencies, out of reach of immigration agents. Children, regardless of status, have a right to attend school, and the ill and injured should feel safe seeking medical treatment without having to calculate the odds of deportation.
But the law does allow criminal justice agencies to continue to submit names of people arrested to federal databases and to notify ICE of the pending release of people who previously have been deported for a violent felony. It also requires the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to inform ICE of the release times of all prisoners convicted of violent or serious felonies.
That provision should be broadened; the bill should be amended to allow prisons, jails and other criminal justice agencies to release reasonable amounts of information to ICE about all inmates. As currently drafted, state or local officials would, in essence, be determining what is a deportable offense, something that is outside their responsibility.
This bill is a stopgap measure. In the longer term, Congress needs to come up with a comprehensive reform plan that allows the federal government to enforce immigration laws at the borders while offering a path to legal status for immigrants who have been living responsibly, but illegally, in the U.S. for years. Otherwise, we are heading pell-mell toward disrupted and fearful communities, further erosion of faith in public institutions such as the police and courts, and destabilized labor markets in immigrant-heavy industries such as agriculture, construction and food services.