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Challenges Implementing Sanctuary State Law Keep Immigrant Fears At a High

Nearly two years after California’s sanctuary state rule took effect, immigrant advocates say law enforcement agencies are still helping federal immigration agents with deportations. 

In 2016 and 2017, California passed two different laws regulating the way local law enforcement agencies interact with federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. For pro-immigrant groups, it was a step toward making California a “sanctuary state” where undocumented residents could cooperate with police without the fear of deportation.

But law enforcement agencies are implementing the law inconsistently and it may be jeopardizing the safety of detainees, according to a new report from the California Immigrant Policy Center, an immigrant rights organization. Law enforcement groups say it’s been a challenge to comply with new requirements while also fulfilling obligations to the federal government.

SB 54 puts limits on when law enforcement agencies can comply with ICE’s transfer requests. AB 2792 dictates how transparent agencies must be when they’re cooperating with ICE. 

To determine whether the two laws have been effective, report authors analyzed policy documents and internal emails acquired through public records act requests from police and sheriffs departments across the state. 

Layla Razavi, the center’s policy director, says deportation numbers are down since the policies took effect. But in some parts of the state, law enforcement agencies have not made the necessary changes to protect immigrants, she said. 

“People should not be just handed over wholesale into the arms of immigration officers,” she said. “The law is really clear when you read it, so it’s a question of whether the people that are implementing the law are operating in good faith, and really whether there’s political will to do everything that this law sets out.”

The report found that some law enforcement agencies are not directly transferring detainees to ICE, but rather notifying federal officials when certain detainees are released so that they can be on hand to pick them up. 

“The police don’t call that a transfer, because they’re no longer entering the premises and picking someone up from their cell or pod and directly conducting a transfer,” Razavi said. 

Razavi’s team found some agencies are still allowing ICE agents to share their office space, which is prohibited under the law, and that many are not properly conducting the newly required community forums about ICE cooperation. 

Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s office is responsible for enforcing the law. Last year they put out an information bulletin and some detailed recommendations about how agencies can change their protocols to comply with the new policies.

“We’re not going to let the Trump Administration coerce us into doing the federal government’s job of enforcing federal immigration law. We’re in the business of public safety, not deportation,” Becerra wrote in the bulletin.

Many law enforcement groups have said the law is too restrictive, and prevents them from aiding federal agents with important cases. The Trump administration sued California over SB 54 in 2018, but a three-judge panel ruled this spring that it does not conflict with federal law, and that “California has the right … to refrain from assisting with federal efforts.”

Cory Salzillo with the California State Sheriffs’ Association said he couldn’t speak to individual agencies’ protocols. But he believes departments across the state are doing their best to comply, even if they don’t support the policy. 

“There’s a desire to be able to be able to say ‘yes this person’s in our custody,’” he said. “But if they can’t do that because of the law then that’s when those two things come together — complying with the law but also potentially being challenged by it.

The California Immigrant Policy Center report recommends the Legislature work to clarify the definition of the word “transfer” under the law. They’ve also laid out best practices from select cities and counties that they feel are implementing the law correctly. 

In the meantime, Razavi said the inconsistency in compliance makes it hard for advocates to counsel immigrants on what to do when they’re in trouble. 

“The knee jerk reaction is often times to say that you should be trusting and come forward and cooperate,” she said. “I think under the current climate that’s a very difficult ask to make of any reasonable person.”

An earlier report from the center found that about 40 percent of law enforcement agencies statewide are not properly complying with SB 54. 

Sammy Caiola
Cap Radio

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