Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

California's 'Trust Act' challenges federal policy as it aims to limit deportations

Protestors rallying in support of the California
Protestors rallying in support of the California "Trust Act" block the path of a Los Angeles County Sheriff's vehicle in September 2012. Signed into law last fall by Gov. Jerry Brown, the measure will restrict who state and local authorities can hold for deportation at the request of federal agents..
Anibal Ortiz / KPCC

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Among the raft of immigration-related state bills that California Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law last fall is a precedent-setting bill known as the Trust Act, which challenges federal immigration policy as it seeks to limit deportations.

The idea of the Trust Act (an acronym for "Transparency and Responsibility Using State Tools") is to restrict who state and local authorities can hold for deportation at the request of federal immigration agents.

The new law does so by limiting what's known as deportation holds, which are issued at the request of immigration authorities. Under the Trust Act, only serious criminal offenders can be held. If there is no other reason to detain them, immigrants with clean records or those convicted of a straight misdemeanor would be released.

The Trust Act specifically challenges a federal program called Secure Communities, which since 2008 has allowed  state and local authorities to share fingerprints of immigrants booked at local facilities with federal agents. The way it's worked in the past is that if there's a match, a deportation hold is issued.

While the stated goal of the program is to catch deportable criminals, critics complain that it's led to too many otherwise law-abiding immigrants being deported.

The version of the Trust Act that became law was a heavily tightened one on which Brown had input. The governor vetoed an earlier version in 2012, saying at the time that the bill was "fatally flawed" because it omitted too many serious crimes as grounds for a deportation hold.

The revised bill defines the offenses in question more clearly.  For example, in additional to those who have committed violent crimes, immigrants with some non-violent felony offenses on record would still be eligible for deportation holds, such as immigrants with felony DUI convictions.

Immigrants could also be held for deportation if they've been convicted of what's called a "wobbler" - a crime that can be charged as a felony or a misdemeanor. Police would be allowed to put a deportation hold on someone convicted of a misdemeanor "wobbler" in the last five years.

Some local jurisdictions in California and other states have adopted similar policies. The California measure has also influenced state lawmakers elsewhere, such as Connecticut, where a similar bill inspired by California's was signed into law earlier this year. Immigrant advocate Chris Newman of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network believes it will have further influence.

"I do think that other states will replicate, and perhaps even improve upon the California Trust Act," Newman said, adding that Trust Act-style measures could soon be considered in a handful of other states, including Massachusetts.

The last precedent-setting state immigration bill that challenged the Obama administration was Arizona's stringent SB 1070, which landed that state in federal court in 2010. States that followed suit, like Alabama, also wound up facing lawsuits.

But the feds haven't sued California so far. UC Irvine political scientist Louis DeSipio doesn't think they will.

"I think the Obama administration is more than happy to have states take the leadership role, as long as it doesn't challenge the federal prerogative to regulate immigration," DeSipio said. "So a bill like the Trust Act really doesn't present the challenge to the federal government that Arizona's legislation did."

The Trust Act takes effect in January 1.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that California was the first state to adopt such a measure. A Connecticut measure based on the California Trust Act was signed into law in July, before the California bill became law in October.