Immigration bill divides California sheriffs
SANTA ANA – California sheriffs are divided over a bill aimed at protecting certain illegal immigrants from deportation, with some saying that if Gov. Jerry Brown signs the measure they’ll be forced to choose between enforcing it or abiding by a conflicting federal mandate.
The Trust Act recently passed by the Legislature would limit the state’s participation in the federal Secure Communities program, which checks the immigration status of people who are arrested. The program is touted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement as a vital crime-fighting tool but reviled by immigrant advocates who say it erodes immigrants’ trust in police.
The legislation would prohibit local law enforcement officials from detaining arrestees while ICE checks their immigration status unless the person is suspected of a serious or violent felony. Supporters tout it as a counter to harsh state immigration laws like the one in Arizona that encouraged local law enforcement to act as immigration enforcement agents.
Brown, who supported Secure Communities when he was state attorney general, hasn’t said if he will sign the legislation.
The prospect of having to choose between following state or federal law is troubling for some law enforcement officials. The California State Sheriffs’ Association opposes the legislation, and Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca is among those struggling with the issue.
“It does set up a conflict,” Baca spokesman Steve Whitmore said. “He’s pretty much resolved to the fact that the federal law … does take precedent.”
Sonoma County Sheriff Steve Freitas declined to say what he would do because he wanted to avoid pressuring Brown.
“I am going to break either the federal law, or the Trust Act,” Freitas said. “I am not going to say which one I am going to break until the governor decides what he is going to do.”
Several Northern California law enforcement officials, including Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith, voiced support for the legislation, saying it would reduce the costs shouldered by local departments asked to help carry out immigration enforcement.
Under Secure Communities, arrestees’ fingerprints are checked against immigration databases and criminal records. Federal authorities may ask police to hold an arrestee for possible deportation if he or she is suspected of being in the country illegally.
Over the last four years, the program has been expanded across the country and is now in place in more than 3,000 jurisdictions. Since 2009, nearly 80,000 people flagged through the program in California have been deported.
ICE officials said in a statement that immigration “detainers” are placed on arrestees “to ensure that dangerous criminal aliens and other priority individuals are not released from prisons/jails and into our communities.” State and local law enforcement cooperation is a critical component of the program.
Critics say Secure Communities is too sweeping, allowing people picked up for minor infractions to face possible deportation. Some cities and counties have scaled back or stopped honoring ICE detainers.
Thomas A. Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said communities can do so because detainers essentially are requests from federal authorities to keep arrestees in custody, not requirements to do so.
“It would be unconstitutional otherwise,” Saenz said. He anticipated that if Brown signs the bill, any sheriff who fails to comply will be sued.
“The federal government knows as much as they might want everybody to grant their requests, they cannot mandate it,” he said.
Brown has until Sept. 30 to sign the bill.
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