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California Attorney General Repudiates Secure Communities, Renews Momentum for TRUST Act

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After being vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown in California’s last legislative session, the reintroduced TRUST Act is gaining new life after state attorney general Kamala Harris recently announced that local and state police agencies are no longer obligated to follow the federal program known as Secure Communities.  As conservative columnist Ruben Navarrette wrote this week:

Now the division within the party [over Secure Communities] has spread to California, where the top two statewide officials are at odds over the program.

State Attorney General Kamala Harris recently told local and state law enforcement agencies that they are free not to comply with Secure Communities. The Los Angeles Police Department — the largest in the state — had already chosen to opt out; police Chief Charlie Beck announced in October that he was pulling his officers out of the program…

On the other side of this issue is California Gov. Jerry Brown, who in early fall outraged immigration rights activists by vetoing a piece of legislation called the TRUST Act. Authored by Democratic Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, the bill would have barred local law enforcement from cooperating with federal immigration agents unless the detainees in question were charged with serious or violent felonies.

Secure Communities forces local police to double as federal authorities when they come into contact with undocumented immigrants, requiring them to collect fingerprints and then hold immigrants until federal agents can pick them up.  The program is only supposed to net serious criminals—but in reality casts a much wider net, leading to the deportations of mothers, fathers, and community members who were pulled over for minor traffic violations.  And the program is supposed to be optional for the states—something else that was revealed to be not true last year, when Democratic Governors Deval Patrick (MA), Andrew Cuomo (NY), and Pat Quinn (IL) tried to pull out of the program, and found out they couldn’t.

Now Kamala Harris is on the forefront of taking on Secure Communities, and she already has several major backers.  Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, citing her announcement, has said that his department will no longer comply with federal requests to hold immigrants—a dramatic turnaround from the days when he opposed the TRUST Act and faced lawsuits from the ACLU for allegedly denying bail to immigrant detainees.  The Republican sheriff in a heavily Democratic county—which has deported more people through Secure Communities than Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s Maricopa County–seems to be making like many national Republicans, and softening his tune on immigration.

Harris’ move, however, only underscores the need for a statewide TRUST Act.  Her announcement lets individual police jurisdictions decide what they want to do with immigrants, whether it’s to de-prioritize them or to hold them for federal arrest.  That means that different localities in California could have wildly differing policies toward immigrants—whereas the TRUST Act would bar all local law enforcement from cooperating with federal agents, except in serious felony cases

As Chris Newman, legal director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, said to the Los Angeles Times:

It’s imperative that California have a uniform statewide policy. It’s essential that people not receive different treatment under the law as they’re driving up and down the 5.

Reshma Shamasunder, the Executive Director of the CA Immigrant Policy Center, agreed:

[The] announcement from California’s top law enforcement leaders should eliminate the confusion among some sheriffs about the legal force of detainers. These cruel and costly requests are voluntary. But that alone won’t end the suffering of thousands of Californians who are torn from their families each month. The only logical next step is a strong, statewide standard that limits these burdensome requests. The only logical step is the TRUST Act.

Governor Jerry Brown has pledged to make the TRUST Act a priority for the coming term.