Jonny Perez, 20, remembers several incidents from his childhood when his family needed help, but his mother was too afraid to call the police: someone broke into their house in Richmond, and their car was stolen. When his mother needed protection from an abusive boyfriend, her kids finally called the police.
In all three cases, Perez said his mother was afraid that if she contacted the police for help she might be deported.
Her fears were legitimate. According to a federal policy called Secure Communities local law enforcement officials are expected to cooperate with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to identify immigrants for removal.
ICE asks local law enforcement to hold the people it suspects have entered the country illegally.
With 2,180 Secure Communities deportations since 2010, Contra Costa County has the highest number of such deportations in the Bay Area.
But, Perez says a new law is helping to ease the fears of those in the immigrant community. As of January 1, the bar for immigration holds will be set a lot higher. This is thanks to AB4, which Governor Brown signed into law on October 5. Also known as the Trust Act, this law restricts California law enforcement cooperation with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. ICE declined to comment for this story.
There are exceptions written into the law: law enforcement may cooperate with federal immigration officers to detain undocumented immigrants who have prior convictions for assault, sexual abuse, burglary, and child abuse.
For the past year, the Contra Costa Sheriff’s department has been rethinking its compliance with Secure Communities, even working with the Contra Costa Interfaith Supporting Community Organization to intervene in individual cases to have ICE holds lifted. Soon the shift in policy will be official.
Officers are optimistic about the change, said Robert Nelson, Special Assistant to the Sheriff. “The net has been way too wide. We feel positive that we are finally getting clear direction from the state.”
Because Secure Communities is an opt-in program, each jurisdiction has been doing something different, and the lack of consistency has been hard on both affected residents and law enforcement, Nelson said. “You can be arrested for something here, but down the freeway if you were arrested for the same thing there would be a different outcome.”
Richmond Police Chief Chris Magnus said his department stopped complying with Secure Communities almost a year ago. “It’s crazy to ignore or underserve this population.” The Trust Act will help encourage witnesses and victims of crime to come forward. “To me it’s non-political when it comes to public safety,” Magnus said.
The new law appears uncontroversial, or at least politically correct, in Richmond. Richmond Confidential contacted local conservatives, the Contra Costa Victim Advocacy program and representatives of several branches of law enforcement, but no one spoke up to object to the law; and several said they support it. Local law enforcement said they have not received any negative pushback from the community.
Outside the city boundaries, however, the law does have its critics.The Federation for American Immigration Reform said that AB4 is a disservice to public safety. “The Trust Act is a dangerous law that undermines federal immigration enforcement and allows arrested illegal aliens back onto the streets to reoffend and continue to break our immigration laws,” wrote Kirsten Williamson, the organization’s press secretary in an email.
The California Sheriff’s Association also finds problems with the law. Aaron Maguire, the association’s legislative representative said it doesn’t take into account individuals who have a history of deportation or might be a risk to national security; “We wouldn’t have that information where the federal government might.”
But immigration rights advocate Andres Soto said that this new policy should actually improve public safety by building trust between the community and law enforcement, “We’ve been having problems with the Contra Costa Sheriff’s Department dating back to the ‘80s. This has been an ongoing struggle, and this is a significant move in the right direction.”
Though he agrees that the Trust Act is positive, Adam Kruggel of the Contra Costa Interfaith Supporting Community Organization pointed out that there are still many people it won’t help, including those who ICE detains directly. “There’s still a lot of work to do on the ground for it to be implemented correctly,” said Kruggel.
Nelson thinks this law is a good middle ground for law enforcement, but he pointed out that there it merit to what the immigration agency does. “The whole point of this [Secure Communities] is to get the worst of the worst off the streets,” Nelson said. “We’re doing the best we can to keep folks safe and protected from harm.”
The process of building relationships will happen gradually, Magnus said, as people in the county start to recognize law enforcement’s “sincere desire to provide the best possible service regardless of immigration status.”
While not everyone in Richmond is aware of the new law, Soto said, “it’s the people that are still living in the shadows” who are paying attention.
“It [The Trust Act] really means everything,” said Perez. “They are leveling the playing field and letting everyone who’s been in the country for a long time, actually be able to have the rights that everybody else has.”