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California may choose "trust" over Secure Communities program

Flickr user Robert Couse-Baker, under CC License

It’s been a busy season for immigration issues. In June, President Obama announced that he would halt the deportations of undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as minors. A week and a half later, the Supreme Court struck down most of Arizona’s controversial immigration law, SB 1070.

Meanwhile, in California, the TRUST Act, which some are calling the ‘anti-Arizona’ bill, passed in the state Senate and Assembly. In the next month, Governor Jerry Brown will decide whether to sign this legislation into law.

The TRUST act would enable California to opt out of several of the requirements of a controversial federal immigration program called Secure Communities. The federal program, known as S-COMM, asks local law enforcement to run the fingerprints of people they arrest through a federal immigration database. If a person is undocumented, they must report him or her to federal officials. 

Though S-COMM is meant to focus on criminal immigrants, the government’s statistics suggest the program has mostly affected immigrants without criminal records. Since California began the program, more than 75,000 people living in the state have been deported. Nearly 70% of these people either have no criminal conviction at all, or were convicted of minor crimes, like selling ice cream without a permit or running a red light.

The bill was authored by San Francisco Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, and has support from California Catholic bishops, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles, police chiefs from both Oakland and Palo Alto, and various immigrant-rights organizations, among others. If it becomes law, it will change the way the whole state deals with illegal immigration.

That would affect people like Ivone, a Mexican immigrant who asked that we not use her real name. She does not speak much English, so she spoke through her lawyer, Jackie Shull-Gonzales. Ivone tells the story of how her husband was detained after being pulled over. "We had gone to purchase some groceries and we were driving on Foothill Boulevard. My husband was driving and accidentally ran a red light and he was stopped by police officers," says Ivone through her interpreter.

When the police pulled him over, Ivone’s husband did not have identification, or any papers for his car. The officers did not find anything suspicious, but they still arrested him. He spent the next two weeks in jail and in immigration custody. Eventually, Ivone was able to get him released on bail, but the government had already started deportation proceedings. 

Ivone’s husband does not have a criminal record, but the institution of S-COMM means that just getting pulled over was enough to bring him to the attention of immigration authorities. His history, and the amount of time he’s been in the United States, means he might ultimately be allowed to stay, but that is not guaranteed.  

If the TRUST act had been in place when Ivone’s husband was arrested, it would have required law enforcement officials to treat him as they would any citizen, and release him from jail once criminal charges were dropped. TRUST act author Tom Ammiano says the shift in priorities will allow local police to focus on more pressing issues. 

"You know the cop on the street, he or she knows that many times it's a waste of their time, when there's other stuff that needs to be attended to, real violent crime, or harmful criminal activity, rather than wasting their time on someone who may or may not be documented," says Ammiano.

Harmeet Dhillon, chairman of San Francisco’s Republican Party and a supporter of S-COMM, sees the situation differently. "I think local law enforcement's job is keeping the public safe, and if the federal government has mandated that keeping the public safe," she says, "and particularly in this post-911 era, includes keeping track of all undocumented aliens and deporting many of them. I don't think that the state is at liberty to ignore those laws."

As more undocumented immigrants have come into contact with S-COMM, many people worry that the program is actually hurting public safety by eroding trust between citizens and the police. Ivone says her encounter with police in Oakland has changed the way she thinks about authorities.

"It definitely changes my feelings before I never would have questioned calling the police if I needed help for something, and now I need to think really hard about whether I would do that again and whether the reason I'm calling is necessary, " says Ivone.

The TRUST Act heads to Governor Brown’s desk later this month.

Crosscurrents Immigration