WASHINGTON -- California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed a bill on Saturday limiting the state's cooperation with federal immigration authorities, a rebuke of a major Obama administration enforcement policy that has led to record deportations from the state.
As the Congress stalls on immigration reform, action continues in the states, and advocates and politicians in California hope they can serve as an example of how to do it right.
“While Washington waffles on immigration, California’s forging ahead,” Brown said in a press release after signing the legislation into law. "I’m not waiting.”
The new California law, known as the Trust Act, limits the state's cooperation with Secure Communities, a federal program that allows the Department of Homeland Security to access fingerprints taken by local police, to screen detained individuals for immigration status and to request that law enforcement agencies hold them if they're found to be undocumented.
Democratic Assemblymember Tom Ammiano, the top sponsor of the Trust Act, said before Brown's signature that he hopes state actions like California's will put more pressure on Congress, rather than drawing attention to the legislative fights there.
"It makes it all the more important that California be on the lead on this," he said. "If we get the governor's signature, it will be really a benchmark. It will be one of the first states that has gone on record about this program. ... And hopefully, it will signal to D.C. that they need to start moving."
Advocates have been pushing for the Trust Act for years, and finally succeeded in getting the bill to limit Secure Communities past both houses in 2012.
But Brown vetoed last year's version of the legislation, calling the bill “fatally flawed.” Brown faulted the earlier version of the Trust Act for barring the state from detaining individuals on behalf of Immigration and Customs Enforcement even when they were charged with or convicted of significant crimes, including offenses involving child abuse, drug trafficking and gang activity. This year’s version of the Trust Act addressed those concerns by making the list of crimes classified as serious offenses more extensive.
Former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who recently because president of the University of California system, shifted on the Trust Act and urged Brown earlier this week to support it -- even though the Secure Communities expanded across the country under her watch.
California isn't the typical state on immigration. Nearly 20 years ago, it passed a ballot initiative to crack down on undocumented immigrants. The state became Democratic-leaning not long after, a shift in part attributed to anger from the growing Latino community about the harsh law. The state is now about 38 percent Latino, according to the most recent Census data, compared to the roughly 17 percent of the population made up by Latinos nationwide. California is also among the most immigrant-friendly states in the country. The legislature passed a bill last month to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver's licenses, following steps taken by 10 other states.
Yet California isn't the only state or locality that has at least attempted to limit the scope of Secure Communities. Massachusetts, New York, Illinois and the District of Columbia either attempted to opt-out of the program or passed laws instructing law enforcement to ignore orders to hold individuals. But no area was exempted from the program -- Secure Communities is now implemented nationwide, in 3,181 jurisdictions.
ICE spokeswoman Gillian Christensen previously declined to comment on the California legislation while it was pending, but said the agency has made identifying and removing criminal offenders its "highest priority" and has implemented reforms toward that end. ICE did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Saturday.
Supporters of the Trust Act say Secure Communities makes immigrant communities fearful of police and less likely to report crime, in case in doing so they reveal their undocumented status and get into trouble.
"This is more a law enforcement issue than an immigration issue," Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who has criticized Secure Communities, recently told HuffPost in an interview. "What this will do for law enforcement in California is that it will ensure that immigrants collaborate with law enforcement."
Maria del Carmen Sánchez, 45, knows the fear of getting slapped with an ICE hold.
Police arrested her last year after a minor traffic accident. Sánchez, who speaks limited English, says she was driving her neighbor to jury duty. But based on statements from English-speaking witnesses, police suspected that a man had been driving the car instead. When her son tried to bail her out of jail, he found that ICE had requested local authorities to keep her detained because she is undocumented.
“It was a really bad experience,” Sánchez told HuffPost in Spanish. “My kids suffered. I suffered. That was my fear, that they would separate me from my children. I kept thinking, ‘What’s going to happen?’ They need me. I need them.”
The City of Torrance, in California, dropped the criminal charges against Sánchez in September. But she remains in deportation proceedings.
Secure Communities -- or S-Comm, as its opponents refer to it -- isn't designed to ensnare people without criminal records who get into fender benders. Despite reforms aimed at limiting holds for non-serious offenders, a report released Tuesday by Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University found that plenty of people were held even when it was against ICE policy to do so.
The program is also expensive when used on a broader basis, beyond serious criminals. Requests to detain are supposed to last 48 hours at most, but law enforcement officials sometimes keep people longer, according to reports. A report from Justice Strategies in August 2012 found that Los Angeles County was spending more than $26 million a year to hold undocumented immigrants who it would otherwise release if it weren't for ICE requests to hold them. Justice Strategies estimated that California taxpayers were spending $65 million each year to hold immigrants for ICE.
National groups opposed to comprehensive immigration reform, such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a national group against legalization for undocumented immigrants, urged supporters to contact California lawmakers and ask them to oppose the Trust Act. "This bill would undermine public safety in my community and impede the federal government’s ability to enforce immigration law," the group's suggested script read.
But advocates of the bill said it is a major step forward toward broader immigration reform in the U.S., and applauded its passage.
"The tide is turning," National Day Laborer Organizing Network Executive Director Pablo Alvarado said in a statement. "California’s historic legislation marks a shift of the pendulum away from the criminalization of immigrants and against the idea that police should have any role in immigration enforcement. ... The President should take a cue from the state of California and other locales that have rejected his deportation quota program and reverse course on his administration's policies of Arizonification."