Reversing his position from a year ago, Gov. Jerry Brown on Saturday signed a law that shields illegal immigrants arrested on suspicion of many crimes from being turned over to immigration authorities.

Coming on the heels of Brown signing a bill allowing illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses, Brown's signature on the so-called Trust Act signaled a personal turnaround. It also highlighted the dramatic shift in Californians' views toward illegal immigration since voters in 1994 overwhelming approved Proposition 187, which barred illegal immigrants from receiving public benefits but was ultimately overturned in court.

Brown said that AB4 by Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, "protects public safety and yet also protects immigrants who are basically living upright lives and working hard for the people."

The bill prohibits placing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement holds on jail inmates who are otherwise eligible for release. Brown said he now felt comfortable signing the bill because the Legislature had added several provisions to the Trust Act since he vetoed it last year that will allow those charged or convicted with serious and violent felonies to be held for ICE agents. Crimes added to the list that expose immigrants to deportation include child abuse, gang-related crimes, drug trafficking, weapon sales, using children to sell drugs and aggravated federal felonies.


Advertisement

The bill extends statewide what Santa Clara County and some other jurisdictions around the country have already put into practice, sometimes raising controversy when immigrants who might have been deported are later arrested on suspicion of committing serious crimes.

Law enforcement agencies, which opposed the bill, and immigrant advocates both had energetically lobbied Brown on Ammiano's bill.

"We're seeing a sea change in California's acceptance of this rather large group of people -- 2.7 million people," said Larry Gerston, a political-science professor at San Jose State.

Part of it is simply a recognition of numbers. "It's hard to imagine elected officials not recognizing that Latinos are becoming the largest single group in the state," Gerston said.

"Opposition to illegal immigration isn't as ardent as it was even a few years ago," said Jack Pitney, a politics and government professor at Claremont McKenna College. He said that's true not only in California, but also nationwide.

Still, critics of illegal immigration blasted Brown and the Legislature.

A digital fingerprint  displayed at Santa Rita Jail in Dublin, Calif., in 2010 after the jail implemented Secure Communities, the program that alerts
A digital fingerprint displayed at Santa Rita Jail in Dublin, Calif., in 2010 after the jail implemented Secure Communities, the program that alerts federal authorities when an illegal immigrant is booked. (Jim Stevens, Bay Area News Group)

They are placing politics before public safety, said Kristin Williamson of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group that tries to reduce both legal and illegal immigration.

"Californians, regardless of their immigration status, are now left unprotected from deportable criminal aliens, and ICE agents will be forced into unnecessarily dangerous situations trying to track down illegal aliens who were already safely in the custody of state and local law enforcement," she said.

In San Jose, as word of Brown's signature Saturday morning spread through an immigration-reform rally, march organizer Lucila Ortiz said the move was precisely the sort of legislation that the nation's immigrants are longing for.

"We think this will actually improve public safety because until now so many in the immigrant community have been afraid to call police because they fear they'll be pulled into deportation," Ortiz said.

Marcher Adriana Morieko, 40, agreed. The program coordinator for a local nonprofit, Morieko called the governor's action "excellent news."

"If you're stopped by police for a minor infraction," Morieko said, "you shouldn't have to also worry that it will lead to you being deported."

The Trust Act has its genesis in the 2008 Secure Communities program, a federal-state partnership Brown signed when he was California's attorney general. Under it, the FBI shares a suspect's fingerprints with ICE, which may ask for an immigration hold. The program had led to tens of thousands of deportations in California.

Now that cooperation will be limited.

Immigration holds became a focus with the arrest of Mario Chavez on suspicion of killing his wife on Sept. 7 in San Jose. A month earlier, Chavez, who is in the country illegally, had been arrested and released by jailers in Santa Clara County after allegedly threatening his 6-year-old son with a knife.

ICE officials said they would have kept Chavez behind bars after the threat. Instead, he posted $8,000 in bail, ignored a protective order and allegedly stabbed his wife to death.

How the law affects public safety may influence whether similar legislation is enacted in other parts of the country.

"California is undertaking a notable experiment," Pitney said. "We'll have to see how it works."

Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775. Follow her at Twitter.com/noguchionk12.