California Democrats want to make more immigrants eligible for protection under the so-called sanctuary state law by closing exemptions that allow local law enforcement agencies to participate in the deportation of people accused of certain crimes.
Four years ago, the Legislature approved a law that limited when California authorities could help Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents detain and transfer immigrants into federal custody. Former Gov. Jerry Brown signed the law amid the Trump administration's tough talk on immigration enforcement.
The law does not apply to people convicted of 800 different crimes, meaning local police can still assist ICE in detaining and deporting certain people. The list of exempted crimes included both misdemeanors and felonies, some drug offenses, arson, registered sex offenses and domestic violence.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation was also exempted, meaning state prison inmates can be deported upon release from custody.
Advocates for the law held up these exemptions when they argued for it, saying sanctuary state protections would not apply to people convicted of violent crimes.
Lawmakers this year are trying to repeal those exemptions and ban all California law enforcement agencies from cooperating with or assisting federal agents in detaining, deporting or interviewing any immigrant in their custody.
California officers wouldn't be allowed to give notification of an inmate's release, for example, or join a joint-federal task force if any purpose of the panel is immigration enforcement.
Advocates for Assembly Billy 937 say the proposal is necessary because some law enforcement groups in California have exploited "loopholes" the 2017 law has allowed.
"You have all of these directly impacted community members who have earned release from state prison ... who are still getting turned over to ICE involuntarily and unnecessarily by (the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation) and by some sheriffs departments," said Angela Chan, policy director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice — Asian Law Caucus.
"California has no business," Chan added, "doing a favor to ICE."
California police chiefs fight bill
The state Assembly on June 3 narrowly approved AB 937 on a 42-21 vote. Sixteen members, mostly Democrats, abstained from voting. The bill is moving through the Senate, and needs to pass that chamber on a majority vote before an end-of-session Sept. 10 deadline.
Meanwhile, police unions have ramped up efforts to block the bill.
Chris Catren, vice president of the California Police Chiefs Association, said in a Tuesday statement that AB 937 "goes too far and endangers all of our communities."
The association is lobbying against the bill because it would remove law enforcement's ability to partner with federal agencies on international "anti-human trafficking and terrorist task forces."
That would hamstring police ability, Catren argues, to keep those convicted of sex crimes, murder, rape, torture and kidnapping from being released on California's streets.
The Peace Officers Research Association of California and the California State Sheriff's Association are also lobbying against the bill.
"This proposed legislation puts local law enforcement in a no-win situation, having to choose between state and federal laws," PORAC wrote in a statement to lawmakers.
Advocates for immigrants counter that the measure doesn't prohibit criminal enforcement, modify sentencing or intervene in the parole board's review process.
"We've worked on bills for several years around making sure that there's no entanglement between local law enforcement agencies and ICE," said Shiu-Ming Cheer, deputy director of programs for the California Immigrant Policy Center. "The Vision Act was a logical next step in terms of making sure that people who have finished their sentences are able to actually be able to continue living their lives here."
Without the bill, she added, undocumented immigrants would continue to be at unfairly at risk for deportation after serving their sentences.
If a task force is "really about human trafficking and terrorism," and not immigration, Chan added, law enforcement could still help federal agents.
Californians support immigrant protections
Assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo, the Los Angeles Democrat who wrote the bill, also said AB 937 aims to end a discriminatory practice of continued incarceration for immigrants who've already served time and earned parole.
"Although prior legislation made strides to keep a number of immigrant and mixed-status families together, ongoing collusion between jails and prisons and ICE has allowed for Californians to continue to face double punishment simply because of where they were born," Carrillo said in a statement. "Current laws have allowed law enforcement across counties to create different policies that ultimately have created an unjust system that treats people differently across the state. This is not good public policy. The state needs one system — one that does not discriminate against Californians just because they weren't born here."
Chan said police groups are last-minute lobbying against the measure because her coalition believes they have enough votes in the Senate for it to pass. About two-thirds of Californians surveyed in a study commissioned by Chan's group in June and July said they supported the bill.
"Those who are attempting to use incendiary language and boogeyman scenarios to prevent a bill that the majority of California voters support from becoming law, are relying on unsubstantiated racist dog whistles because they have no evidence that collusion with ICE improves public safety," Carrillo said.
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