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September 12, 2017

Undocumented Immigrants Should Not Have to Risk Deportation for Talking to Police

By Kevin R. Johnson

[Cross-posted from the Sacramento Bee]

In 2015, the San Francisco Sheriff's Department released an undocumented immigrant as required by local ordinance. He later allegedly murdered Kate Steinle. This undeniable tragedy stirred a national controversy over "sanctuary laws."

But many state and local governments had similar laws and policies that require the release of noncitizens from custody in the absence of a federal warrant. The Los Angeles Police Department, among others, limits police inquiry into the immigration status of crime victims, witnesses and suspects, a policy that dates to the late police Chief Daryl Gates' tenure in 1979.

The basis for such policies stems from an important principle: effective law enforcement requires trust of all residents, including immigrants. To build that trust, local government cannot appear to be part of the federal immigration enforcement machine. For that fundamental reason, there traditionally has been a separation between local police and federal law enforcement.

Consistent with that long tradition, a proverbial flood of jurisdictions across the country responded to record numbers of removals by the Obama administration. The goal was to enact laws and policies to protect state and local government autonomy. In 2014, the California Legislature passed the TRUST Act, which said state and local law enforcement did not have to cooperate with the U.S. government for arrests of noncitizens who committed minor crimes.

Now the Legislature is considering the California Values Act, Senate Bill 54 by Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles. The bill is a response to President Donald Trump's repeated threats of mass deportations, made all the more real with the rescission last week of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

SB 54 would provide safeguards to ensure that immigrants can visit government offices, work with police, take their children to school and go to the doctor without fear of deportation. In line with policies already in place, it also would allow local and state jurisdictions to refuse to comply with federal immigration enforcement if an undocumented immigrant has not committed a major crime.

The act responds to a palpable fear among immigrants, who are anxious about any interactions with state and local government officials. Specifically, they believe that information provided to those local officials could end up in the hands of federal immigration enforcement authorities. And who could blame them?

In recent months, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials have gone to state and local courthouses to make targeted arrests of undocumented immigrants facing criminal charges, even traffic infractions. Immigration officials have gone so far as to arrest an undocumented immigrant after he dropped his child off at school.

The Trump administration no doubt will attack the California Values Act, as it has attacked "sanctuary cities" generally. In a January executive order, the administration threatened to eliminate all federal funding to so-called sanctuary cities. A federal court in San Francisco ruled that the defunding proposal was unconstitutional.

The U.S. Supreme Court has also weighed in by striking down state laws, such as Arizona's "Show Your Papers" law, SB 1070. That law mandated that state and local law enforcement officers participate in immigration enforcement. Although state and local officials cannot regulate immigration as Arizona tried to do, they can determine how to provide essential services to immigrants in their communities. That is precisely what the Values Act seeks to do.

California's Values Act is not an attempt to regulate immigration. Rather, it is an attempt to serve and protect all California residents, consistent with federal law. De León's bill is a legitimate effort by the state to determine how it interacts with, and protects, its citizens.