Arizona, it’s fair to say, really gets under liberal skins—especially in California. When Arizona lawmakers passed Senate Bill 1070 in 2010, empowering police to check an individual’s immigration status during any “lawful contact,” Golden State politicians fell over themselves condemning their neighbor to the southeast, threatening boycotts and passing sternly worded resolutions. Perhaps it was only a matter of time, then, before California also answered Arizona’s widely misunderstood law with ill-conceived legislation. On a party-line vote of 21 to 13, the state senate this month approved San Francisco Democrat Tom Ammiano’s bill forbidding local law-enforcement agencies to detain and hand over to federal immigration authorities any illegal aliens who don’t have a “serious or violent” criminal record.

“Today’s vote signals to the nation that California cannot afford to be another Arizona,” Ammiano said on July 5, the day the measure passed. Assembly Bill 1081, which its sponsor has called the Transparency and Responsibility Using State Tools Act, or TRUST, purportedly creates a national model to “counter the racial profiling” that Arizona’s law supposedly inflicts. In reality, AB 1081 differs from the Arizona law principally by weakening local law-enforcement agencies’ ties with federal immigration-enforcement officials.

AB 1081 would severely curtail California’s participation in the national Secure Communities program. Just four years old, Secure Communities has been the bête noire of immigration activists from day one. Under the program, fingerprints of arrestees go not only to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, as they already did, but also to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau, which runs the prints through its database. If the fingerprints belong to an illegal immigrant in the system, ICE will generally ask the local law-enforcement agency to detain the individual on immigration charges. ICE then decides whether to begin deportation proceedings. About 1,210 jurisdictions around the U.S. currently participate, and the bureau wants to make the program mandatory by next year. In its first three years, Secure Communities has resulted in hundreds of thousands of deportations. A large portion—about 75,000—of the removals attributed to the program originated in California. Of those, 19,500 deportees had been convicted of misdemeanors, 12,600 were convicted of non-aggravated felonies or multiple misdemeanors, and 23,500 had aggravated felonies or multiple other felonies on their rap sheets.

As Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies has noted, Secure Communities is “the kind of thing that’s so obvious that most laymen think it’s been standard procedure all along.” And, contrary to critics’ claims, immigration-enforcement agents are supposed to exercise fairly broad discretion in the field, as a June 2011 memo from ICE director John Morton makes clear. Among the factors agents take into account: the illegal immigrant’s age when he entered the country; whether he graduated from high school or attends college; military service, if any; previous arrests and outstanding warrants; “ties and contributions to the community, including family relationships”; and whether the illegal immigrant is “currently cooperating with a law enforcement agency.”

But Ammiano and Secure Communities opponents claim that the program snares too many people with “minor” convictions, including those who ignored previous deportation orders or overstayed their visas—as if such violations don’t warrant attention. Ammiano’s bill supposedly focuses law enforcement on only the most dangerous criminal illegal aliens. Opponents of the measure note, though, that “minor” crimes also include misdemeanor assault and battery (even on a police officer, if a weapon wasn’t involved), drunken driving, and spousal abuse. In terms of Secure Communities deportation, the TRUST Act would effectively absolve illegal immigrants of those crimes.

At the same time, Ammiano argues that Secure Communities worsens the tension between cops and illegal immigrants, discouraging illegals from reporting crimes or cooperating with police. He even claimed that the child abuse at Miramonte Elementary School might have ended sooner, if not for parents’ fears that they would fall afoul of a Secure Communities fingerprint screening. (Incidentally, Ammiano voted against a bill that would have let school districts speed up the process of firing teachers such as Miramonte’s Mark Berndt, who faces 23 counts of lewd conduct with a minor.) Several police chiefs and sheriffs have repeated the mantra that the TRUST Act would improve public safety by easing illegal immigrants’ anxieties about encountering police. But City Journal’s Heather Mac Donald has exposed the dubious logic of that claim, which would mean “that illegal aliens should never face any threat of apprehension and deportation from immigration authorities, lest they form a bad feeling about law enforcement.”

AB 1081 awaits a vote from the state assembly, which easily passed an earlier version last year. If it passes, Governor Jerry Brown will face pressure to sign the TRUST Act into law. As state attorney general, Brown signed the memorandum of understanding that authorized California’s participation in Secure Communities. Back then, Brown said the program served “both public safety and the interest of justice.” Since he became governor, though, Brown has been mum on the subject. There is no guarantee, in other words, that he’ll veto AB 1081. California’s communities will be less secure if he doesn’t.


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next