By Neidi Dominguez
When President Obama announced in June that he would grant certain young, undocumented immigrants opportunities to avoid deportation and work legally in the United States, thousands of people felt the cloud of stress and fear which shadows our lives begin to lift. That announcement was an important step to advance immigrant rights in this country. The next big step is here in California – a bill sitting on Governor Brown’s desk waiting for his signature to become law.
The TRUST Act, which cleared the State Assembly and Senate, would prevent a deeply flawed federal deportation program from tearing apart more California families, diverting important resources and costing the state millions of dollars. It would free local law enforcement from helping to enforce a federal program responsible for the deportation of roughly 400,000 people annually, most of whom have not committed a serious crime or violation.
The source of the problem is a deviously named program called “Secure Communities.” The program is intended to target only “those who pose a threat to public safety,” by cross-checking fingerprints of anyone stopped by police with immigration databases and placing those with criminal records in line for deportation. But instead, it’s become a dragnet for deporting virtually anyone caught in the program’s web: 70 percent of immigrants fast-tracked to deportation through Secure Communities were convicted of only minor offenses, like traffic violations or none at all.
California’s TRUST Act would restrict law enforcement from honoring detainer requests from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for all but serious offenders, restoring the program to its original intention. It would alleviate many people’s fear that just a speeding ticket could result in a forced removal from family and home.
For immigrants like me who were brought to this country at a young age, the President’s “deferred action” announcement brought renewed hope. But it also highlighted harsh divisions in my own family. My mother brought me to Pasadena from Mexico for a safer life when I was 9 years old. She cleaned houses and offices during the day and delivered the Los Angeles Times at night. She made it possible for me to graduate from UC Santa Cruz. Now, while my sister and I wait for our legal work permit and plan to get driver’s licenses, she still lives in fear that any interaction with the police could mean her deportation, and that is my biggest nightmare.
The DREAM Act stalled in Congress and the politics surrounding it garner most of the headlines, but in the meantime DREAMers’ parents and thousands of other hard-working men and women are being shown the door, deported even when they have children who are U.S. citizens.
Religious, civil rights and labor groups have united to urge Governor Brown to sign the TRUST Act, but some sheriffs are claiming that requests from the federal government to detain immigrants in local prisons are mandatory. That’s simply not true. In a letter to Governor Brown, more than 30 distinguished law professors and deans recently explained that local law enforcement is not bound by law to participate in holds requested by ICE. The TRUST Act is perfectly legal, and implementing it would position California as a role model to other states ready to embrace inclusion and immigrants’ rights.
The TRUST Act doesn’t solve the whole problem, of course. We still need Congress to modernize the broken federal immigration system and scrap the Secure Communities program. That has to happen in Washington, but California can help set a new tone and create an alternative to the inhumane the laws and practices underway in Arizona, Georgia and Alabama.
California has devoted too many scarce resources to this federal program that does more harm than good. The roughly $65 million dollars the state has spent to imprison immigrants takes money away from more resourceful ways to spend taxpayer dollars. Money wasted on Secure Communities would pay the salaries of more than 1,400 teachers or put more than 5,000 students through their first year at any University of California campus.
Several other governors have protested the way the Secure Communities program operates and a number of cities, including Washington, D.C., have refused to cooperate with ICE except in very limited cases where the people involved have clear and significant criminal histories. The TRUST Act would put California in good company and provide Californians with the solution we need. It’s up to Governor Brown to stand with the families that make this state run everyday.
Neidi Dominguez is an immigrants’ rights advocate in Los Angeles.