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By Henry A. Barrios/ The Californian
By Jose Gaspar
While Congress carries on with its political shenanigans, ignoring the people's business, California Gov. Jerry Brown made it real clear he isn't waiting any longer on immigration-related issues. And with good reason. California has roughly 3 million undocumented immigrants living in limbo who are still awaiting congressional action on comprehensive immigration reform.
In the last couple of weeks, Brown signed a slew of immigration-related bills that provide protection for the undocumented, making their assimilation into society smoother. And no doubt ardent opponents of immigration reform are left fuming and bitter because even some Republicans in Sacramento voted in favor of the bills.
One of the biggest legislative victories was granting a driver's license to undocumented immigrants. This one was in the works for more than 20 years, and had been rejected by Brown once before. The vote was mostly along party lines, with Democrats in favor and Republicans in opposition. But four Republicans including state Sen. Andy Vidak of Hanford bucked the party line and voted for it.
Another bill passed and signed makes it a crime for someone, such as an unscrupulous employer, to threaten an undocumented person with deportation. Employers who do so face stiff fines and could lose their business license.
Farm labor contractors better take notice on this one. It's no secret that years ago, immigration officials would magically appear at a work site when employees were to be paid.
Yet another bill protects immigrants seeking legal status from price gouging and other unlawful practices from people, such as attorneys, immigration consultants and notary publics.
But the new law that is drawing the most controversy is the Trust Act.
This milestone measure prohibits local police from holding suspects for immigration agents when they would otherwise be free to go. It is a direct rebuke of the misguided federal program known as Secure Communities put in place by the Obama administration that has led to unprecedented jail holds and deportations of undocumented immigrants for low-level or, in some cases, no crimes. It mandates immigration checks of everyone booked into local jails and if police find someone to be undocumented, they must hold that person for deportation.
For some agencies, it's clogged jails and impeded operations.
"What the federal government touts as a sound public safety practice is having a chilling effect on local law enforcement's effectiveness," wrote San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon in an opinion piece in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Gascon notes the 2010 case of "Norma," a battered woman who was too fearful to call police because she was undocumented. Having had enough, the woman finally called the cops on her husband, resulting in both being arrested and Norma facing deportation, though no charges were ever filed against her.
Gascon was hardly alone in supporting the bill. Police chiefs up and down the state encouraged the governor to sign the Trust Act.
Proponents of the law cited the case of Ruth Montano of Bakersfield. Kern County sheriff's deputies were called to check on a case of barking dogs at Montano's mobile park home. Two chihuahuas were apparently causing a ruckus. Montano was arrested and charged with resisting an officer.
An undocumented immigrant with no criminal history, Montano suddenly found herself facing deportation. Her deportation proceedings were put on hold after several media stories about her plight and the ACLU and local immigration attorney Win Eaton intervened. She is out while her case is being appealed.
Eaton cites the case of another woman he didn't want to name who was arrested for selling flowers on the street as part of a church fundraising effort. She, too, was hauled away and soon facing deportation proceedings, which are still pending.
"At the heart of this is the abuse by Immigration and Customs Enforcement of putting people in removal proceedings that have no criminal history," said Eaton.
The Trust Act, however, has divided the law enforcement community. The California State Sheriffs' Association and the California District Attorneys Association both opposed it.
"We just felt that it's wrong," said Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood. "Because they are here illegally, I think they should be deported."
Youngblood said someone might feel different about the Trust Act if, say, his or her lawn equipment was stolen, a suspect arrested and then released. And that can happen. But to be clear, that person would only be released because he or she has no serious convictions. And that person would still face charges of stealing the lawn equipment.
So, what kind of impact will the Trust Act have in Kern County? Will the Kern County Sheriff's Office comply with the law and release those who qualify?
"Depends on what the offense is and depending on what our attorneys tell us at the end of the day, because there may be a conflict," Youngblood said.