State’s TRUST Act limits scope of federal powers

By Gary Warth
9:43 a.m.Jan. 4, 2014
U-T San Diego

Discord over the TRUST Act, which limits when local authorities can detain unauthorized immigrants for federal agencies, is entering a new phase with the start of 2014.

Supporters of the state measure are launching community-outreach campaigns, while opponents are redoubling their assertions that it rewards lawbreakers and usurps federal powers.

The TRUST (Transparency and Responsibility Using State Tools) Act, which took effect Wednesday, is one of two such laws in the United States. The other, in Connecticut, went into effect on the same day, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

California’s measure narrows the scope of Secure Communities, a federal program in which local law enforcement agencies detain suspected unauthorized immigrants for up to 48 hours — enough time for the Department of Homeland Security to begin deportation proceedings and take over the case.

This local-federal cooperation plays out in various ways.

For example, police officers stop a speeding motorist and find evidence that he’s in the U.S. without permission, perhaps by checking for past crimes or running his fingerprint against a federal immigration database. Or sheriff’s deputies respond to a 911 call about domestic violence and make “immigration detainer” arrests after determining that the alleged victim or abuser, or both, are living in the country illegally.

Under the TRUST Act, local law enforcement can’t put an immigration hold on people who don’t have a felony or other serious crimes. Exemptions listed in the measure include minor violations such as traffic tickets, trespassing and a previous deportation that didn’t result from a crime.

On Friday, Immigration and Customs Enforcement — the lead U.S. deportation agency — gave U-T San Diego a statement regarding the new law.

“ICE will continue to work cooperatively with law-enforcement partners throughout the state of California as the agency works to enforce its priorities through the identification and removal of convicted criminals, public-safety threats or other priorities,” the statement read.

It concluded: “The federal government alone sets these priorities and places detainers on a variety of individuals, including those arrested on criminal charges, to ensure that dangerous criminal aliens and other priority individuals are not released from prisons and jails into our communities.”

Nationwide, leaders of local law enforcement groups have been mixed in their views about Secure Communities. There’s also debate over whether the program is mandatory: ICE said it is, but others dispute that assertion.

In 2012, San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore wrote to Gov. Jerry Brown to oppose the then-proposed TRUST Act. Gore stressed that partnerships between local and federal agencies were key to safety in the cross-border region.

With the bill now law, sheriff’s Cmdr. Will Brown said the department is complying with the legislation. He also said he didn’t know whether Gore had changed his opinion on the measure.

“It has been an adjustment,” he said. “We had to basically come up with a list of qualifiers and check that list versus who we have in custody.”

ICE officers are present at the county jail. Previously, they could request holds on unauthorized immigrants whom sheriff’s deputies had arrested — regardless of the reason for those arrests. Now, the Sheriff’s Department releases such people unless they have a criminal history serious enough to warrant an immigration detainer, the commander said.

Because the law kicked in only this week, the commander said he couldn’t specify how many people in sheriff’s custody would be affected by it.

Outside of law enforcement circles, proponents of the TRUST Act said the exemptions are needed because Secure Communities has become an overly broad dragnet program that targets not only high-priority felons but also unauthorized immigrants who work hard and try to build a better future for their families. They also said some U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents have been wrongly detained because of the program.

Critics of the law said it undermines federal authority on immigration, something largely affirmed by the nation’s highest court, downplays the seriousness of certain crimes and could encourage more illegal activity. They also said the bottom line is that unauthorized immigrants already broke U.S. rules by overstaying their visas or illegally crossing the border — enough reason for deportation.

Amid the acrimony, a local coalition of human- and immigrant-rights groups has opened a hotline for the public to report possible violations of the TRUST Act. The coalition also intends to hold workshops countywide about the new law by month’s end, and it plans to launch an informational website.

“The effectiveness of this bill depends on if it’s implemented properly,” said Homayra Yusufi-Marin, a policy advocate with the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial Counties. The ACLU is a member of the coalition, which also includes Alliance San Diego, American Friends Service Committee, Employee Rights Center, Islamic Center of San Diego, Justice Overcoming Boundaries, North County Immigration Taskforce, the San Diego Immigrant Youth Coalition and the San Diego Organizing Project.

People who call the hotline — (760) 239-7959 — can talk to an advocate or attorney.

In addition, Yusufi-Marin said the coalition has sent letters to the county Sheriff’s Department with recommendations on how to implement the TRUST Act.

Jon Rodney, communications manager for the Oakland-based California Immigration Policy Center, said there are similar grass-roots community-awareness projects being kicked off across the state.

“I think there’s definitely going to be a broad effort to make sure the word is out there,” he said.

But opponents of the new law fear it will cause additional harm.

The TRUST Act could send a message that California welcomes unauthorized immigrants who commit crimes while other states, such as Arizona and Alabama, are expressing the opposite sentiment, said Rob Luton, a spokesman for the San Diegans for Secure Borders Coalition.

“You’ll find when illegal immigration is rewarded, it brings more illegal activity,” he said.

Ted Hilton, president of the San Diego group Taxpayer Revolution, said the new measure will spur more crime that could have been prevented with deportation.

“If these people had been turned over to federal authorities and removed from the country, that completely reduces the possibility of them committing a felony or more misdemeanors,” he said.

Hilton also said the local coalition’s promotion of the TRUST Act is “catering to a population that doesn’t have lawful status or the right to be here.” He added: “Helping unemployed Americans get a job, that’s where the ACLU should take a stand.”

Yusufi-Marin and other supporters of the TRUST Act have said the law could help fight crime because it will remove the fear some immigrants had of working with law enforcement. As an example, she cited an Escondido woman who was detained through Secure Communities after she reported that her boyfriend had beaten her.

“We don’t want individuals afraid to report a crime,” Yusufi-Marin said, adding that local law enforcement should focus on protecting the community, not collaborating with federal immigration authorities.

Pedro Rios, chairman of the San Diego Immigrant Rights Consortium, said he expects the TRUST Act will be implemented smoothly in this region.

“National City, Chula Vista and San Diego police have already expressed their support for it,” Rios said, referring to three agencies that had sent letters to the governor urging him to sign the measure into law.