Jan. 9 2013 10:04 AM

California Democrats are leading down the path to immigration reform

Tom Ammiano (at podium) rallies for the TRUST Act.

The immigration debate is set to flare up once again in Washington, D.C., but the path to citizenship may begin in Sacramento.

Democratic state Assemblymember Tom Ammiano recently, and for the third time, introduced the TRUST Act to the California Legislature. The bill would limit law enforcement's participation in Secure Communities, a system introduced by President George W. Bush and expanded by the Obama administration that allows federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to ask local police and sheriff departments across the country to hold undocumented immigrants already in custody for the purpose of deportation.

The TRUST Act passed through both houses of the Legislature last fall before Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the bill. Now, amid rising dialogue on both sides of the aisle over immigration reform, it's back. And Ammiano insists that the governor pay attention.

"This is not something we can shy away from," he said. "This is bigger than Jerry Brown. This is bigger than me."

During the first week of December, California made a statement to the nation: Immigration policy is not working, and we will not take part in a broken system.

On Monday, Dec. 3, Ammiano reintroduced the TRUST Act. The next day, Tuesday, Attorney General Kamala Harris told law-enforcement agencies that their participation in Secure Communities was no longer mandatory. And on Wednesday, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, whose county accounts for almost one-third of undocumented residents in the state deported through Secure Communities, said that he would no longer hand over or detain un documented immigrants for low-level crimes.

Californians have heard talk on immigration reform in Washington, D.C.; Obama has said he'll focus on the issue soon after dealing with the fiscal crisis, and the nation's Republicans, humbled by November's results, are now talking seriously about how to attract rising numbers of Latino votes.

But as the discourse builds in Washington, the batalla de inmigración has long since begun in California—home to 27.8 percent of the nation's Hispanic population and almost 25 percent of all undocumented residents.

"While those conversations are underway in D.C., in California the TRUST Act will be setting a standard," said Jon Rodney with the California Immigrant Policy Center (CIPC), a nonpartisan outfit that focuses on immigration policy. "This really is an issue that has national attention."

CIPC is one of numerous immigrants'-rights groups putting its weight behind the TRUST Act. Emboldened by the state's Democratic supermajority in the Legislature, these organizations see California as a harbinger for national immigration reform.

Between its 2008 introduction and Aug. 31, 2011, Secure Communities succeeded in deporting 220,322 undocumented immigrants. More than 82,500 of them, some 37.5 percent, came from in California.

Secure Communities has indeed been effective in numbers, but opponents of the program argue that it has gone far beyond its original focus of deporting undocumented men and women with criminal records.

Of the 82,531 undocumented residents deported from California through August 2011, 20,917—roughly 25 percent—had not committed a crime other than entering the country without permission. Los Angeles County proved the toughest on enforcing the program, handing 26,030 undocumented residents over to federal officials, almost 6,000 of whom had not been convicted of a crime.

In San Diego County, 3,147 of the 12,643 people deported through Secure Communities were not convicted of any crime before their removal, mirroring the state's percentage of deportees who hadn't been convicted of a crime.

If passed, the TRUST Act would mandate that California's law enforcement only have the option to comply with ICE detainment requests if the undocumented person in custody was convicted of a "serious or violent felony."

The TRUST Act is a "good idea," said Homayra Yusufi, a policy advocate for the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties. "It ensures that state and local law-enforcement agents will focus on what they are trained to do: protect the public through building trust with local communities. We all know that our communities are safer when law enforcement agencies are able to foster transparency with the communities they serve."

Sacramento politicos don't see the bill having much trouble passing through both houses again, but it will also have to survive the governor's desk once more.

In a letter explaining his veto last September, Gov. Brown wrote that "the bill is fatally flawed because it omits many serious crimes," such as those "involving child abuse, drug trafficking, selling weapons, using children to sell drugs, or gangs."

Ammiano, however, says the governor was "a bit out to lunch" during the sculpting of the bill the last time around, perhaps due to his focus on passing Proposition 30. But he warns that everyone in the state Capitol, not just Brown, may want to start paying attention this time.

"The Latino vote is not something that can be dismissed," Ammiano said. "It should be on anyone's mind if they're thinking about running again."

Make no mistake: The message of immigration reform echoes across both sides of the aisle.

Mark Standriff, spokesperson for the California Republican Party, is adamant that his party needs to reach out to the rising Latino voting bloc.

"The Republican party has to do it now. We cannot wait," Standriff said. "We need to get past the obstacles that are there now in order to establish a sense of trust and respect with the Latino community."

Fresh off a string of defeats across the state, California Republicans have spent the last month poring over demographic data from the election. As is often the case, they did not fare well among the younger, single, more urban voting bloc. Nor did they strike a chord with minorities.

The Pew Hispanic Center reported this month that the nation's Latino electorate is set to double by 2030, accounting for 40 percent of the growth in eligible voters. In California, where Latinos comprise almost 40 percent of the population, these estimates are not to be taken lightly by future candidates.

In two previous state conventions, Republicans have invited Latino business and community leaders to take part in a town-hall discussion. As this year's spring convention in Sacramento draws near, the GOP looks ready to ramp up dialogue with the Latino community.

"I think that right now, everything needs to be on the table in our discussions," Standriff said. "I'm sure the immigration issue will be something that will be discussed seriously in the convention."

Even as the Democratic-supermajority Legislature sends its message to Washington on immigration reform, some state Republicans are taking strides of their own.

GOP Assemblymember Jeff Gorell wrote an op-ed in The Sacramento Bee just after the election urging his party to pick up the banner and lead the way in providing undocumented residents a path to citizenship. And L.A. County Sheriff Baca's decision this month to only enforce Secure Communities on illegal immigrants who've committed serious crimes surprised many Californians.

What has long been a mantra of things to come in Washington, D.C., has been a fact in California for some time now: The Latino vote has arrived.

This story originally appeared in the Sacramento News & Review on Dec. 27, 2012. Write to editor@sdcitybeat.com.


See all events on Friday, Dec 2