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Faith in the Trust Act

In vetoing a bill last year that would have curtailed some deportations under the federal program known as Secure Communities, Gov. Jerry Brown explained that he feared it would block immigration authorities from removing some genuinely dangerous criminals.

Now, a new bill is moving through the Legislature, and it attempts to fix the problems of its predecessor. That bill, known as the Trust Act, would still allow police to hold immigrants convicted of serious crimes, including some misdemeanors, for up to 48 hours while they await transfer to federal custody. But it would prohibit police from detaining those arrested for minor offenses — such as disturbing the peace, street vending or traffic violations — solely for immigration purposes. That's an important change that has earned the support of local police chiefs and sheriffs who worry that Secure Communities is forcing police to act as immigration agents.

Initially billed as a powerful tool that allowed federal officials to target immigrants convicted of serious crimes, Secure Communities requires state and local police to provide the fingerprints of anyone arrested to federal officials. Those fingerprints are then checked against criminal and immigration databases. That sounds fine in theory. In practice, however, the program has failed to distinguish between violent felons and street vendors. Since the program began, thousands of noncriminals have been deported, and more than 3,000 U.S. citizens have been detained, sometimes for weeks or months, on immigration holds known as detainers.

In general, it is both unwise and unconstitutional for states to meddle in immigration law, which is the province of the federal government. In this case, however, the cooperation of the states is being sought by the federal government, and states are attempting to comply in ways that fulfill the government's stated objective: to focus deportation efforts on those who pose a risk to public safety.

Last year, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck announced he would no longer comply with the federal requests for those arrested for minor convictions. His decision followed similar responses from officials in Cook County, Ill.; Newark, N.J.; and New Orleans. Beck, like other police chiefs and sheriffs across the country, worries that Secure Communities erodes immigrants' willingness to cooperate with police. In a recent study by the University of Illinois at Chicago, 44% of Latinos interviewed said they would be less likely to contact police officers if they were the victims of a crime because they feared any interaction with police might lead officers to ask about their immigration status or that of family members.

Brown was understandably concerned about the previous iteration of this bill. With its problems fixed, however, he should sign it.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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