Immigration bill in Calif. legislature: The new and the old Trust Act

Leslie Berestein Rojas | April 11th, 2013, 11:37am
The news earlier this week sounded familiar: A California bill that intends to limit the number of immigrants held by state and local police for deportation has moved forward, clearing a committee vote that will send it to the Assembly floor.
It has the same name, the Trust Act, as a bill vetoed last fall by Gov. Jerry Brown. And the same sponsor, Bay Area Democrat Rep. Tom Ammiano. The new bill was developed with the same end goal in mind, but there are differences and newsdevelopments.
The vetoed Trust Act (which stands for "Transparency and Responsibility Using State Tools") was a retooled version of a bill that cleared the Assembly in 2011. It was intended to let California's local jurisdictions opt out of Secure Communities, a controversial federal immigration enforcement program that allows fingerprints of people booked at local and state police facilities to be shared with immigration officials.
That fell apart in August 2011 after Homeland Security officials rescinded federal-state Secure Communities contracts, asserting that states had no choice but to participate. The 2012 "2.0" Trust Act attempted instead to work around Secure Communities; it proposed that state and local law enforcement should not be allowed to detain a person on a federal immigration hold if there was no present criminal reason for holding them - unless that person had previously been convicted of a serious or violent felony.
It landed on Gov. Brown's desk last fall, but he vetoed it with the message that he was "unable to sign this bill as written." From Brown's memo:
Unfortunately, the list of offenses codified in the bill is fatally flawed because it omits many serious crimes. For example, the bill would bar local cooperation even when the person arrested has been convicted of certain crimes involving child abuse, drug trafficking, selling weapons, using children to sell drugs, or gangs. I believe it's unwise to interfere with a sheriff's discretion to comply with a detainer issued for people with these kinds of troubling criminal records.
Which brings us to round three Thursday. On its way to yet another full Assembly vote, which both of its predecessors cleared, the latest Trust Act has been stripped of some language added to previous versions that created snags. It omits language allowing immigration holds for people not convicted of serious crimes, but in custody for serious criminal charges. It also omits a past provision that would have required law enforcement agencies to set up plans for preventing racial profiling, something critics argued would burden cops with extra work.
Another difference now isn't in the bill but in the circumstances surrounding it. In December 2012, California Attorney General Kamala Harris issued a bulletin to law enforcement advising state and local law enforcement that they could choose whether to place immigration holds on people at the request of federal agents. Federal requests for immigration detainers were not legally binding, her guidance went, and honoring such requests was "not compulsory."
Soon afterward, some law enforcement leaders announced they'd change their policies on immigration holds to abide by the guidance, among them Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca.
So why is a state law restricting who is held for immigration agents needed now?
Immigrant advocates argue that because Harris' guidance is discretionary, there is no standard being observed by agencies, and that there's still confusion as to where states can draw the line on honoring federal immigration holds - or not.
"There is a fundamental misunderstanding about even the most basics aspects of federal law,"said Chris Newman of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, an immigrant advocacy group. "There is misunderstanding as to whether to whether the state has legal authority to do it."
Brown mentioned in his veto message last fall that "the significant flaws in this bill can be fixed" and that he would "work with the Legislature to see that the bill is corrected forthwith." The latest version of the Trust Act could go up for a full Assembly vote as early as next week.