Politics

Legislatures Seek to Protect Immigrants from Federal Law

As Congress considers major revisions to federal immigration laws, legislators in a few states are trying to block the federal government’s power to deport immigrants who land in their jails.
March 26, 2013

By Daniel C. Vock

As Congress considers major revisions to federal immigration laws, legislators in a few states are trying to block the federal government’s power to deport immigrants who land in their jails.

The efforts to pass so-called Trust Acts are essentially the polar opposite of laws passed in Arizona and elsewhere to encourage illegal immigrants to leave their states. Sponsors want to put the brakes on a wide-reaching federal program, called Secure Communities, that asks state and local police to detain illegal immigrants after an arrest until federal immigration officials can pick them up. Critics of Secure Communities argue that the program leads to the deportation of some people who pose little threat to the public.

The public push to pass Trust Acts started in several state capitols this month. At a rally on Beacon Hill, Massachusetts, immigration advocates noted they already signed up 34 cosponsors in the legislature who back the effort. In Sacramento, activists showed up with their dogs to protest a woman detained by federal authorities after neighbors complained to police that her dog barked too loudly. And Connecticut legislators held their first hearing on the Trust Act there.

Proponents hope their bills can scale back deportations in their own states, while influencing the national debate over immigration, too. The Obama administration backs Secure Communities, as it set record highs for the number of immigrants deported per year.

“One of the biggest barriers to moving forward with immigration reform is the contradiction of continuing to deport the people today who would otherwise become citizens tomorrow,” said B. Loewe, a spokesman for the National Day Laborers Organizing Network, which is pushing the laws.

“If we can pass enough of these, it would force the federal government’s hand to say ‘we can’t depend on the states to do our job,’” said State Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, a Democrat who is sponsoring legislation in the Connecticut House.

Opponents of these bills say the legislation interferes with police departments’ ability to keep their residents safe. “The Trust Act and all of its clones are creatures of political leaders, not law enforcement agencies,” said Jessica Vaughn, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, a group that supports tighter controls on immigration.

A Far-Reaching Program

The federal government launched Secure Communities in 2008, and it is now used in every state. The program allows Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to review the records of suspects in the custody of local and state police for immigration violations at the same time that the FBI examines their criminal histories.

If ICE officers find a prisoner who they think is in the United States illegally, the federal agents can ask local police to keep the prisoner in custody for up to two days. The federal government has used the program to deport more than a quarter of a million people since 2008, or about 7,000 people a month last year.

The state legislation to curb Secure Communities would primarily prevent local police from turning over less-dangerous immigrants to federal authorities. The latest push comes after the federal government told states last year that they could not opt out of the program. The governors of Illinois, Massachusetts and New York had tried to keep their states from participating.

One of the biggest disagreements over Secure Communities centers on how well it targets criminals convicted of or charged with serious crimes. The Obama administration says the program is one of the most effective ways to go after illegal immigrants who are dangerous.

“Even though some aliens may be arrested on minor criminal charges, they may also have more serious criminal backgrounds,” said Dani Bennett, ICE spokeswoman. Many prisoners who were released by police, despite ICE requests to keep them in custody, then went on to commit more serious crimes, she said. “Law enforcement agencies that honor ICE detainers ultimately help protect public safety.”

The inspector general of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security reviewed hundreds of Secure Communities cases and found that ICE followed its policies in 97 percent of them.

The Obama administration recently tweaked the program to reduce the number of people ICE pursues after arrests for traffic offenses and other petty crimes.

But advocates for immigrants argue that Secure Communities still is often used to deport people who have only minor infractions on their record. Roughly 28 percent of people deported under the program since it began in 2008 were convicted of “aggravated felonies” or had two felonies on their record. But 77 percent had some sort of criminal history.

California Veto

The conflict over Secure Communities has been most visible in California, formerly home to more than a third of all the immigrants who have been deported through Secure Communities. Last year, lawmakers sent a Trust Act to Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown to sign.

The proposal would have allowed local police to comply with ICE requests to keep prisoners in custody only if the prisoners had been charged with “serious or violent felonies.” But the governor vetoed the measure because the definition of serious crimes didn’t include abusing children, trafficking drugs, selling guns and other significant offenses.

“The significant flaws in this bill can be fixed, and I will work with the legislature to see that the bill is corrected forthwith,” the governor wrote in his September veto measure.

Evan Westrup, a spokesman for Brown, said that work is under way. “Our office continues to work closely with the legislature to address the concerns the governor raised in his veto message last year,” Westrup wrote in an email.

But Democratic Assemblyman Tom Ammiano , chief sponsor of the Trust Act, is still pushing legislation that is very similar to the measure Brown vetoed, said Carlos Alcala, Ammiano’s spokesman. The governor’s staff, Alcala said, still has not shared their suggestions for changes.

Connecticut Builds on Prison Program

The vetoed California bill is still being used as a blueprint by legislators in Connecticut, Florida and Massachusetts.

In Connecticut, the law would put in place a common statewide policy similar to the one the state prison system adopted nearly a year ago.

The Department of Correction began individual reviews of cases where ICE had asked for holds on prisoners before they were released. The number of prisoners the state handed over to immigration authorities dropped by two thirds, from about 30 people a month to about 10, said Travis Silva, a Yale law student who worked on the court case that prompted the new policy.

The agency bases its decisions on how dangerous the prisoner appeared to be. Many of the people it let go had no serious criminal offenses on their records. In some cases, the only run-in with immigration officials was missing a court date two decades ago, Silva said.

But after the state began its screening policy, ICE asked for the department to turn over fewer immigrants, too, as if federal officials were tailoring their requests to meet the state’s new policy, Silva said.

Holder-Winfield, sponsor of the Connecticut measure, said the case of Josemaria Islas illustrated the need for a statewide policy on Secure Communities. Federal immigration authorities took Islas into custody as he was being released from jail by a judge, because judicial marshals who work for the court system did not have the same policy as the prison system.

Holder-Winfield said the varying policies also made immigrants more suspicious of police generally. “I grew up in a community as a black person in the United States, where we had fear of the police. I know what that means. It means the communities become less safe,” he said. “We don’t need that, whether it be in my black community or in their Mexican community or Jamaican community.”

At the New Haven-based immigrant rights group Junta, legal analyst Ana Maria Rivera Forastieri said she hopes the proposal will pass in Connecticut and that other states will approve similar laws. “We’re not the only state that is pursuing legislation like the Trust Act,” she said. “We believe this legislation will save a lot of lives and a lot of families.”

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