A bill that would remove California’s counties from federal immigration fingerprint checks easily advanced in the state Senate this week.
The Public Safety Committee on Monday voted 5-2 in support of AB 1081, legislation intended to make California the fourth state to opt out of U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement’s Secure Communities program.
Jails in all 58 of California’s counties are participating in the fingerprint program, many of them willingly. However, the fingerprint program has drawn significant criticism for how U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has implemented the checks, and for who is being deported as a result.
Secure Communities allows local police at county jails to check inmates’ residency status by running their fingerprints. When the biometric database makes a match, officers learn a suspect’s documented immigration history and whether federal officials are placing a “hold” on the suspect.
The state Assembly passed the bill May 26. Should the legislation pass a vote by the full Senate – and then receive Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature – California would join New York, Massachusetts and Illinois in leaving the federal program.
The governor's support, however, is far from assured.
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Last year, Brown, as state attorney general, blocked San Francisco from opting out of Secure Communities. In a written statement on Monday, the governor's office said Brown supports "comprehensive immigration reform," but does not believe the fingerprint checks are optional.
"We have been advised that the federal government has sole authority over matters involving immigration," the statement says. "In discussions with the Director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, it was made clear that states have no legal authority to opt out of the Secure Communities program."
Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, authored the bill. Specifically, the legislation would remove all counties from the federal immigration effort, at least temporarily.
Officials in each county would have to approve a new resolution to rejoin Secure Communities. These revised agreements would have to protect illegal immigrants who are domestic violence victims and protect against racial profiling.
Another condition the legislation would require is the creation of a complaint system that provides a speedy review of the facts for those facing removal as a result of Secure Communities.
Federal officials have argued that local jails are required to send biometric data to immigration agents. The program ostensibly targets illegal immigrants who have been convicted of serious offenses. But in several states, Secure Communities has led to the deportation of more non-convicts than felons, ICE data shows.
“Detention and deportation of people who have committed no crime are costly processes that take away money our state and local governments need to fight crime,” Art Venegas, former Sacramento police chief, said Monday in prepared remarks to the Senate committee.
The bill’s opponents have made a financial argument against leaving Secure Communities. As the Contra Costa Times reported last week, “the federal government sends a partial reimbursement to (county) jails for immigrant inmates with criminal records who are placed on an immigration hold and jailed for more than three days.”
California has, by far, been the most active state within Secure Communities since it began two years ago, and it is one of the few to deport more serious offenders than non-criminals.
Through February, the biometric scans have prompted the removal of 11,099 “level one” offenders and 9,957 illegal immigrants with no criminal history in California, according to the ICE data. Level one criminals have been convicted of serious or violent offenses.
Sen. Tom Harman, R-Huntington Beach, voted against the bill in committee. He argues that it shouldn’t matter whether Secure Communities also catches illegal immigrants without past convictions.
“If you run afoul of the legal authorities, the public safety authorities, then you can expect to be questioned and asked whether you’re legally in this country,” Harman said.