How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Prosecutorial discretion still a slow process, with relatively few cases closed

U.S. Immigration And Customs Officials Deport Undocumented El Salvadorians

Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

A man is prepared for a deportation flight bound for El Salvador, December 2010

A review of deportation cases announced almost a year ago by the Obama administration is having limited success when it comes to weeding out and closing the cases of people eligible to stay in the country, let alone alleviating the backlog in the immigration courts.

According to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, as of July 20, there had been 7,186 deportation cases administratively closed nationwide as a result of prosecutorial discretion reviews that began late last year, with federal staff reviewing more than 350,000 cases.

Of these, about 6 percent have been identified as "provisionally eligible" for prosecutorial discretion, meaning this relatively small number of immigrants meet the criteria established that makes them a "low priority" for deportation. Included in the criteria: a clean record, close ties to the United States, having lived in the U.S. since childhood, having served in the military or being part of a military family, or having achieved or attempting a college education.


Secure Communities: How much latitude do states have?

The back-and-forth between the federal government and states over the federal Secure Communities immigration enforcement program goes back a long way, with controversy and confusion that began brewing shortly after the program first began rolling out in late 2008.

First there was confusion over the voluntary-vs.-mandatory nature of the program, through which the fingerprints of people booked by local and state cops are entered into a database that allows them to be shared not only with the FBI, but with immigration officials. Next, after several state and local leaders tried to withdraw, fearing Secure Communities might impede policing, the federal government asserted the program was mandatory. State contracts that implied otherwise were rescinded by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement director John Morton last August.


What exactly does the TRUST Act do?

Photo by 888bailbonds/Flickr (Creative Commons)

A Los Angeles County prisoner bus, June 2009.

A measure approved by the California Senate yesterday that some have nicknamed the "anti-Arizona" bill has made headlines today. But some of these have been more confusing than others, so it's time for a brief dissection of what's known as the TRUST Act.

In a nutshell, what the bill does is propose restrictions on the cooperation between local/state law enforcement agencies and federal immigration agents, with its intended goal to shrink the net cast by the federal Secure Communities program. Local and state officers in California would only be able to hold immigrants convicted of felonies and other serious crimes for immigration agents, as opposed to how it works now, where anyone can be held.

What the bill doesn't quite do is "override" Secure Communities, an enforcement program that allows fingerprints of people booked by local and state cops to be shared with immigration agents. Nor does it create a sanctuary state for undocumented immigrants who lack serious criminal records in the sense they might have any sort of protection from the law. Nor does it, beyond the nickname, have anything to do with Arizona.


California's 'anti-Arizona' bill clears state Senate

Photo by Chad Miller/Flickr (Creative Commons)

A California measure dubbed by some as the "anti-Arizona" bill cleared the state Senate this afternoon by a vote of 21-13. Better known as TRUST Act, the bill proposes restricting who it is that law enforcement agencies can hold for deportation at the request of immigration officials.

The bill now heads to the Assembly - which passed a previous version last year - for a concurrence vote on its way to the governor's office.

A heavily amended version of the original approved last year, the measure proposes that local and state law enforcement officers in California only be allowed to hold immigrants with violent or otherwise serious criminal convictions for immigration officers.

The TRUST Act has somewhat of a roundabout history. About this time last year, the original bill (the acronym stands for “Transparency and Responsibility Using State Tools”) was moving through the statehouse. That version aimed to make optional California counties' and cities’ participation in the Secure Communities immigration enforcement program, which allows the fingerprints of people booked by local cops to be shared with immigration officials.


Emails illustrate how non-criminals can get caught up in Secure Communities

Photo by kbrookes/Flickr (Creative Commons)

A series of newly released emails between California and federal officials from last year adds more fuel to the debate over the arrests of non-criminal immigrants under Secure Communities. The federal immigration enforcement program allows the fingerprints of people booked by local police to be shared with immigration officials.

Since not long after its inception in 2008, Secure Communities has been under fire from immigrant advocates, state and local officials in several states, and some law enforcement. Critics complain that the program casts too wide of a net. While its stated goal is to arrest immigrants with serious criminal records for deportation, the program has landed many people who had no convictions or only minor ones in removal proceedings.

Immigrants fingerprinted following traffic stops are at issue in the emails, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by immigrant rights advocates and the immigration clinic of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at New York's Yeshiva University. The emails detail a back-and forth between federal and California Department of Justice officials, who ask if it's possible not to send data on non-criminals stopped at license checkpoints to Homeland Security.