Global Politics

California moves forward with bill to end state role in federal immigration program

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Immigrant advocates rally in support of the California TRUST Act, which if passed would restrict local jails from cooperating with federal immigration agents for the purpose of immigration enforcement. (Photo by Adrian Florido.)

Secure Communities, often called S-Comm, is the federal program that makes it easier for immigration agents to gain access to local jails and detain people suspected to be in the U.S. illegally.

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Supporters say it lets local and federal authorities cooperate on immigration enforcement. But criticism of S-Comm is growing, with cities and entire states, including California, now resisting the program. 

At San Diego County’s central jail, suspects are booked and, for years, have had their fingerprints checked against FBI databases. Straightforward stuff, until 2008.

That’s when the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, or ICE, entered with Secure Communities.

As Captain Daniel Peña explains, now the FBI and ICE are informed of arrests.

“They’ll be able to review those records to see if there’s anybody they have interest (in), in terms of immigration violations or things of that matter,” Peña said.

If ICE believes someone in custody might be deportable, it may send a request to have the person, including people who might otherwise be released, held in jail until an immigration agent arrives — a process that shouldn’t exceed 48 hours.

The program that has helped ICE deport nearly 2 million immigrants since President Barack Obama took office in 2009.

But here in California, there’s resistance to Secure Communities because of stories like Felipe Porcayo’s. Last year, his 23-year-old son was arrested after a fight broke out at a park in San Diego. He says police determined his son wasn’t involved. But ICE asked he be held in custody.

Then he was deported.

Jon Rodney, with the California Immigrant Policy Center, says this is a common story when it comes to Secure Communities.

“The original intent of this program was to focus on people who have serious convictions,” Rodney said. “But when we look at these 100,000 Californians who have been deported, we see that about seven out of 10 did not have what immigration authorities consider to be the most serious offenses.”

Now, politicians and activists are calling on California’s legislature to pass a bill that would address this. Viviana Gonzalez, an undocumented immigrant, spoke in favor of a proposed California bill that would halt local participation in the federal program at a recent rally in Escondido, near San Diego.

“We’re pushing for the governor to sign the TRUST Act this year, because it’s important. Communities like Escondido have seen the brunt of what it means to not have something that protects immigrant families,” Gonzalez said.

The TRUST Act would require local jails to ignore ICE’s request to detain immigrants for deportation, unless they have prior violent convictions.

The bill is called the TRUST Act because its sponsors say it will restore the trust that’s been lost between police and many immigrants who fear that contact with the cops — even calling 911 or cooperating with investigations — could trigger a deportation.

San Diego’s police chief and many other police officers back the Trust Act. But California’s Sheriff’s Association opposes it.

“You get a request from a federal law enforcement agency, and to say that you should basically willfully disobey, or not cooperate, or thwart that request from law enforcement puts local law enforcement in a difficult position,” California Sheriff’s Association lobbyist Aaron Maguire said.

Still, cities across the U.S., including Chicago, New York and recently, New Orleans, are also refusing to honor ICE’s requests.

ICE officials didn’t agree to be interviewed for this story, but they emailed a statement saying the agency’s priority is to deport people who threaten public safety.

But José Ucelo says his story suggests otherwise. He’s a Southern California day laborer who says when he tried to collect his pay from the man who hired him, the man accused Ucelo of trying to rob his house. Ucelo was arrested but, ultimately, not charged.

Ucelo says despite the dismissed charges and no prior crimes, he remained in ICE custody. It took a lawyer, thousands of dollars, and months to get his deportation case closed.

The TRUST Act aims to avoid ordeals like this. California Governor Jerry Brown vetoed the bill last year, saying it needed to ensure violent criminals wouldn’t be released from custody. The California state senate approved a version of the bill Monday, sending the measure back to the state Assembly for final passage before it lands on Gov. Brown's desk.