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Cautious Optimism, Uncertainty as New Immigration Law Goes into Effect Jan. 1

The TRUST Act wants to encourage undocumented immigrants to have a better relationship with the police. But amidst many exceptions and unclear guidelines, some worry about how effective the law will be

By Karina Ioffee

More than 1 million people have been deported from the United States since 2008, a number higher than at any other time in the country's history.

California has borne the biggest brunt of the trend, where over 100,000 people have been deported over the past five years. In response, Governor Jerry Brown passed The TRUST Act earlier this year, aimed at limiting collaboration between federal immigration authorities and local law enforcement. The goal is to deport only the most violent criminals, while showing law abiding undocumented Latinos that they don't have to fear the police.

On Tuesday, local attorneys, immigration advocates and county representatives gathered at the Marin Civic Center Tuesday to learn about the new legislation that goes into effect January 1.

The TRUST Act has many aspects, but in a nutshell it prevents local jails from placing undocumented people on immigration holds if they:

  • have no criminal record, 
  • post bail,
  • have their charges dropped. 

Even when charged with a serious or violent felony, the TRUST Act specifies that suspects must be released until convicted.

The idea is to apply the same standard for all people regardless their legal status: innocent until proven guilty.

"In no other area of law are you able to hold someone without probable cause," said Angie Junck, a supervising attorney with the Immigrant Legal Resource Center in San Francisco and one of the speakers at Tuesday's forum. "But in the immigration sector, this is only realm where people are being held 48 hours longer than they would otherwise be held without probable cause."

Sheriff Robert Doyle, who opposed the TRUST Act, as did the California State Sheriff's Association, said his office would comply with the new law.

Even now, Doyle said the Marin County Jail places only the most criminal offenders on immigration holds, which allows them to be picked up by Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) and eventually deported back to their home countries.

"If you look at the numbers, ICE has only deported about 250 people from the Marin County Jail over the past four years," Doyle said. "We've only put holds on those they (ICE) were interested in, serious violators…We're not holding people just because they don't have a driver's license or were operating a vehicle illegally. There's a lot of people being held because they've victimized people in their own community. So I think we've been very judicious about that."

Despite the new law, federal immigration officials will still be able to come into the county jail and have access to information about inmates, which is publicly available, he said. 

"I've always cooperated with Secure Communities (a federal program that screens Department of Justice data with immigration records in an attempt to weed out criminals) and to the extent it's permissible, that what the policy will be," he said.

Asked if he would release someone arrested for a violent felony, but who posted bail, Doyle said he would not.

Marin County Attorney General Edward Berberian admitted the new legislation is complex and would take time for deputies and judges to understand. 

"It's not clear about what can be a prohibited act; It's not going to be easy for a deputy to make a decision on the fly in the middle of the night," he said.

And therein the problem.

Junck, the immigration attorney, worries that because the new law is so convoluted, it does little to encourage trust in the Latino community, already suspicious of cooperating with the police in any way for fear of being deported.

"The bigger question for the community is when you have a law that has so many exceptions, how do you know when you're going to be turned over to ICE? I think the clearest message is one that is black and white. Either 'We work with ICE' or 'We don't work with ICE'. Until we get to 'We don't work with ICE, we need to need to continue improving trust between law enforcement and the community."

One speaker at Tuesday's meeting asked about what would happen to a man arrested for domestic violence, even if his partner didn't want to press charges. Would he be deported? Potentially, said Berberian, because the District Attorney would weigh the evidence in the case and decide whether to press charges, regardless of what the victim wanted.

That didn't sit well with Hilda Castillo, a member of the Marin Organizing Committee, a coalition of churches and synagogues that supports immigration reform.

"If we're talking about using discretion, it will always be on the side of law enforcement," she said. "If the law is not clear, how will it be implemented in the field? How can it possibly be fair?"

But she also wanted to be optimistic. 

"I really do hope that things change with this law and people feel more comfortable and won't be so afraid to report crime. That they will be able to collaborate."

What do you think? Do you think the TRUST Act is a good step toward reducing the number of people deported? Waste of time? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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