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LOS ANGELES — A row of seven pay-phone booths lines the corner of Bauchet and Vignes streets downtown here, just outside the walls of the L.A. County Men’s Central Jail. From that corner, newly released inmates and visiting families can nearly make out the top of the federal building just a mile south, across the 101 Freeway, where Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers determine the fate of thousands who pass through the county jail gates.
In 2009, Los Angeles County became one of the first in the nation to partner with ICE in a program called Secure Communities, which allows federal agents to access the fingerprints of anyone who has been arrested to see if he or she is subject to deportation. This partnership led to the transfer of nearly 20,000 inmates from jails in L.A. County to ICE custody in 2011. Those transferred, mostly Hispanic males who had committed nonviolent crimes, spent an average of 39 days in custody. In its first three years, the program led to the deportation of nearly 12,000 people, nearly half of whom had no convictions or had committed misdemeanors.
But the new Transparency and Responsibility Using State Tools Act, known as the Trust Act and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown on Oct. 5, aims to limit ICE’s power to hold and deport minor offenders, a reform long sought by both immigrant-rights advocates and law-enforcement officers. Secure Communities was created to target immigrants who committed serious crimes, but in reality, ICE used the program to place a hold on traffic violators. Under the Trust Act, only serious offenders or those with violent pasts may be turned over to ICE. According to one projection, the bill could stop 10,000 to 20,000 Californians from being deported in the next year.
'It's bigger than a bill'
On Oct. 3, Brown traveled to Los Angeles to publicly sign a bill granting licenses to undocumented drivers. He posed in front of City Hall, surrounded by local activists and city leaders, including Mayor Eric Garcetti. Cries of “Sí, se puede” (loosely translated: “Yes, we can”) began to rise in the crowd.
But one attendant, a 47-year-old undocumented mother of four named Betty, began a different chant.
“Pass the Trust Act now,” she began quietly. Then a little louder. “Pass the Trust Act now.” Brown had not yet signed the bill, otherwise known as AB 4, and its fate was uncertain. Soon, others sitting around her picked up the chant, and it grew.
“I just thought, ‘No more. We deserve something better,’” recalled Betty, who asked that her last name not be used. She said that without the Trust Act, people would continue to be pulled over and asked for their immigration status, leading to more deportations.
Her chant and the advocacy of those like her capped a multiyear effort to get AB 4 passed after Brown vetoed a previous, more permissive version of the law in 2012.
Two days after the signing in Los Angeles, Brown signed the Trust Act as well as a series of other immigrant-related bills. He made it a crime for an employer to “induce fear” by threatening to report workers to ICE, and he allowed attorneys who are in the state illegally to practice law. He drew the line, however, at allowing undocumented immigrants to serve on juries.
“While Washington waffles on immigration, California’s forging ahead,” Brown said in signing the Trust Act. “I’m not waiting.”
“This is a movement,” said Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, the act’s lead sponsor. “It’s bigger than a bill.”
Law enforcement's take
Several California law-enforcement agencies decided to support the Trust Act, hoping it would improve relationships between officers and the communities they are meant to serve.
San Diego Police Chief Bill Lansdowne said that residents in his city are reluctant to report crimes or call on police because of deportation fears. “In communities where there is a fear of deportation of family members, there’s a reluctance to step forward,” he said. “AB 4 is a solution for maintaining trust in communities that are dealing with issues of deportation and documentation.”
But some law-enforcement groups have been critical of the Trust Act and efforts to limit ICE’s Secure Communities program, saying the law could diminish their ability to catch and prosecute criminals.
“We’re uncomfortable with potentially releasing people that should be held in custody,” said Greg Ahern, sheriff of Alameda County and president of the California State Sheriffs' Association. He said that immigration matters should be determined by federal agencies and that a state law like the Trust Act could create confusion.
“When we put laws (into effect) that are in conflict, it creates concern with our public,” said Ahern. “They’re not sure what law we’re supposed to be adhering to.”
The California District Attorneys Association has also expressed concern about the Trust Act, saying it could “frustrate local cooperation with federal officials.”
Days before Brown signed the Trust Act, Janet Napolitano, the former Department of Homeland Security Secretary who oversaw the Secure Communities program, lent her support to the law during a meeting with student leaders at the University of California, where she is now president. According to Ammiano, who also met with her, Napolitano has admitted that Secure Communities was “not executed fairly or correctly.”
The Trust Act is California’s response to tough laws in states like Arizona, Alabama and Georgia that restrict the rights of those in the United States illegally and encourage local officers to check the immigration status of people stopped for minor infractions. With national comprehensive immigration reform stalled in Congress, the California law marks the boldest move yet by a state to restrict the reach of federal agencies to detain and deport undocumented immigrants. Now other states, including Massachusetts and Connecticut, have either begun or are considering legislative action on versions of the Trust Act.
In the absence of federal action on immigration, many states, like California, are taking an increasingly active role in shaping immigration policies. In the first half of this year, 43 states and the District of Columbia enacted 146 laws and 231 resolutions related to immigration, touching on issues of work, health, education, law enforcement and voting, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures Immigrant Policy Project. The number of state immigration-related laws passed in the first six months of 2013 exceeds the number of such measures enacted for all of last year.
“As long as the federal government goes without passing common-sense immigration reform, we’re going to see more and more action at the state and local level,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, based in Washington, D.C. Though his organization generally supports the Trust Act, he said it reveals the necessity of nationwide action on immigration.
“We can’t have 50 different sets of immigration laws. We really need the federal government to act.”
Not all states have followed California’s direction in expanding immigrant rights.
After Arizona passed SB 1070, which encouraged local law enforcement to check people’s immigration status if there is “reasonable suspicion” they are in the U.S. illegally, Georgia passed a similar bill, which, like SB 1070, was challenged by civil rights groups that said it led to racial profiling. This year Georgia’s legislature passed another law, SB 160, which prevents undocumented people from obtaining public housing, driver’s licenses and state grants and loans.
Immigrant-rights advocates in Georgia say they are emboldened by California’s Trust Act.
“I think it’s really significant and it’s a really positive development both in California and in other places around the country where state and local officials have stood up to ICE and have said our resources are not to be used for immigration enforcement,” said Azadeh Shahshahani, director of the National Security/Immigrants’ Rights Project at the ACLU of Georgia. “I do hope it will have an impact in Georgia.”
In California many immigrant-rights advocates still cite comprehensive immigration reform as their eventual goal. For now, many California residents, including Maria Palencia, are looking forward to Jan. 1, when the Trust Act goes into effect.
“My father is the one who drives us to college,” said Palencia, a 26-year-old undocumented student at UCLA. “He’s not going to have to fear driving us. He’s not going to have to fear driving to work.”
“It just gives the community an exhale that it desperately needs.”