Stopping the Criminalization of Immigrants

By Pablo Alvarado


Photo courtesy of California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance

Last year, California took great strides forward to make life better for its immigrant residents by passing historic legislation that marked a shift away from the criminalization of immigrants, rebuking the idea that police should have any role in immigration enforcement and warning of the unconstitutionality of federal immigration practices that now are being rejected in counties across the state.

Since 2008, we have lost more than 100,000 Californians due to the expanded collaboration between local police and federal immigration authorities. The Orwellian-named “Secure Communities” deportation program was designed to capture undocumented residents as fodder for an annual deportation quota, and it was forced upon California with disastrous consequences.

The damage done to civil rights, public safety and immigrant families by S-Comm would have been entirely preventable had the TRUST Act been passed when originally proposed. But, thanks to an unprecedented level of activism, the tide is turning not just in California but also around the country. Now, up to 80 percent of people who would have been detained for extended time on Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) hold requests, and then picked up for deportation at ICE’s request, are being spared that nightmare by the bill, which Governor Brown signed in the fall of 2013. What’s more, more than a dozen counties in California have decided to avoid liability by refusing to submit to ICE holds altogether.

Over the course of the three-year campaign to make the TRUST Act a reality, a driving force of momentum was the stark contrast between the Golden State and the state of hate—Arizona.  It became clear that states have the power and the responsibility to fill the vacuum of immigration policy at the national level. States could actually counteract the negative trend of bills that came out of Arizona, Alabama and Georgia.

Thanks to an unprecedented level of activism, the tide is turning not just in California but also around the country.

Arizona and Arpaio served as a warning about the dangers of enlisting police to enforce immigration laws. People repeatedly chanted, “TRUST Act sí, Arizona no!” The actions of Arpaio and Arizona lawmakers certainly contrast to our state’s values, but they also created a pernicious new normal that needed to be overcome. Things were so bad in Arizona that anything different in California seemed like progress.

Brave, undocumented Californians came forward against all odds and, despite their worst fears, helped to expose certain law enforcement officials here in California, such as several members of the California State Sheriff’s Association, who stood in opposition to their efforts. For example, the story of Isaura Garcia, who ended up in deportation proceedings after calling the police for help in a domestic violence dispute, demonstrated that Los Angeles has its own “skeletons” in its immigration policy closet.

And California is not alone in its efforts; it is part of a vibrant, bottom-up movement across the country. Versions of the TRUST Act are being introduced in other states including Arizona, Massachusetts, Maryland and Illinois. Similar bills already have become successful policies in Washington D.C., Newark, Chicago, Seattle and Miami. The public focus brought to deportations by these efforts alongside the dramatic risks undocumented immigrants have taken has precipitated a Presidential review that places Secure Communities under scrutiny and raises the demand for affirmative relief. Immigrant communities are pushing local governments to attempt to use whatever tools they have available to address the crisis caused by a national deportation dragnet and, as a result, are changing the national conversation.

In California, the energy that went into passing the TRUST Act is ensuring that local authorities not only fully comply with and enforce the law, but also continue to push to raise the standard created. The legislation sets a floor—not a ceiling—for what is possible, and it serves as a powerful counterweight to the politics of criminalizing immigrants to which we have become accustomed.

And perhaps more importantly, the TRUST Act has imposed a red light on the Department of Homeland Security’s unjust and unchecked deportation superhighway and laid the groundwork for pending national reforms. Local efforts to ease the sting on immigrant communities caused by the unjust status quo are growing the cause from the bottom up and moving the needle on the public debate. These local victories are making a difference in immigrants’ lives, asserting political equality, advancing rights for all of us and creating progress that cannot be bargained away. As the status of immigration reform in Congress remains uncertain and a runaway deportation machine increasingly is called into question, real solutions are being realized in cities and states across America.

With hope and hard work, justice will spread upward.