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Immigrant Advocates Make Final Push to Pass Bill Ending Prison-to-ICE Transfers in California

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Demonstrators stand in a group, holding signs and photos. One sign says: 'Gov. Newsom Pass The #VisionAct Keep Families Together'
Immigrant advocates rally for the passage of the VISION Act, in Sacramento on June 21, 2022. The bill would end the transfer of immigrants to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement when they are released from California prisons.  (Photo by Joyce Xi, courtesy of the Asian Law Caucus)

California immigrant advocates are making a final push to persuade state lawmakers to pass a bill that would end the practice of transferring noncitizens to immigration custody when they’re released from jail or prison — legislation that would go further than California's existing so-called “sanctuary state” law.

The bill, known as the VISION Act, overwhelmingly passed the state Assembly last year but fell short of the 21 votes needed for Senate passage, so it carried over as a “two-year bill.” Now it’s awaiting a floor vote in the state Senate before the legislative session concludes at the end of August.

The bill’s backers are looking for support from three more senators, and they’ve been sending letters and holding rallies in the districts of several Democrats still on the fence. If the session ends without a vote, the bill will die.

Late Tuesday, the authors made amendments to AB 937 that they hope will address concerns from Democratic senators who pulled back their support last year over opposition from law enforcement groups. One change would allow the state parole board to notify ICE if an immigrant who was released on parole is later convicted of a serious new offense.

At a recent press conference, Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo, the bill’s author, emphasized that it would still require incarcerated immigrants to serve their sentences. But under the VISION Act, state and local officials would no longer hand them over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement upon release, unless served with a warrant issued by a judge. State and local officials would also stop tracking the birthplace of offenders in their criminal records systems.


“If individuals have served their time, have paid their debt to society, regardless of where you are born you have a right to restart your life,” she said. “That is the societal contract that we have. And California should not be in the business of collaborating with ICE.”

On average, nearly 1,600 people come out of state prison each year with an immigration hold that leads to their transfer to ICE to be deported, according to an estimate by state Senate staff.

The VISION Act would close a loophole in an earlier law, the 2018 California Values Act, SB 54, sometimes known as the “sanctuary state” law, which limited police and sheriff’s departments from collaborating with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, with exceptions for a wide range of crimes, from violent felonies to certain misdemeanors. The Values Act didn’t prohibit transfers to ICE by prisons, but the VISION Act would.

Police and sheriff’s groups oppose the bill. They point to federal law, which says immigrants, even those who are legal with green cards, can be deported if they’ve committed a so-called “aggravated felony,” from a long list of crimes that includes some misdemeanors. And they say it’s safer for ICE to take custody of a person inside a locked facility than to arrest them at their home or a public location.

“This proposed legislation puts local law enforcement in a no-win situation, having to choose between state and federal laws,” the Police Officers Research Association of California said in a statement last year.

And in a joint statement, law enforcement groups noted that the VISION Act would prevent them from notifying immigration authorities of the release of people who had served sentences for crimes such as rape, murder and torture.

“We are also not arguing that immigrants somehow pose any more threat than citizens or asking to involve immigration authorities in low-level offenses. However, there should be a point, in the most egregious cases, where we do not provide protections for dangerous persons from enforcement,” the statement said.

But advocates for the bill say it’s not California’s responsibility to do the work of immigration enforcement, and ICE can still bring deportation proceedings against someone whether or not they’re incarcerated. They point to other states — including Oregon and Illinois — which have passed laws to end most prison-to-ICE transfers.

“In California, we're always proud to say that we're the first when it comes to social justice,” said veteran civil rights and labor organizer Dolores Huerta. “Well, now we're not the first, because other states have already taken care of this issue. ... It’s time for us to act.”

Huerta called the transfers “double jeopardy” because people often wind up spending additional months or years in ICE detention, where it’s more difficult to mount a defense against deportation.

Los Angeles resident Sandra Castañeda lived through that. When her conviction for a murder she didn’t commit was vacated last summer, she thought she’d be going home after 19 years in prison. Instead, she was handed to ICE and held for a year in a private detention center in rural Georgia. She said she saw many women there give up their cases in desperation and accept deportation, because they couldn’t bear the conditions.

“I thought I would never say this, but prison is better than this place,” Castañeda said last month in a phone call from the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga. “In prison you have a routine. You have a job, there's classes, there's things to do. ... Here, you’re stuck in a dorm with 23 people, all day, every day.”

Castañeda was released this month with the help of a pro bono lawyer, Anoop Prasad of the Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco. An immigration judge ruled that she’s not deportable because she no longer has an aggravated felony on her record.

Castañeda’s conviction was wiped away by a California judge after the Legislature eliminated the state’s “felony murder” rule, which had allowed her to be charged with murder because she was driving a car out of which a fatal shot was fired, even though she had no indication that her passenger would shoot. But Prasad noted that Castañeda also earned a commutation from Gov. Gavin Newsom because of her exemplary behavior in prison.

“For the governor on the one hand to be like, ‘I'm granting clemency. You're a model for other incarcerated people.’ And then in the next breath to say, ‘Oh, call up ICE and have this person deported,’” makes no sense, Prasad said. “California needs to end this hypocrisy of working with an agency that's so cruel.”

A UC San Diego poll last summer found two-thirds of California voters supported the VISION Act.

The bill could go to a vote in the state Senate next week. Newsom has not given any indication of whether he will sign the bill if it reaches his desk.


Aug. 26 Correction: A previous version of this story mischaracterized SB 54, the California Values Act, saying it allowed police and sheriffs to collaborate with ICE only in cases of immigrants convicted of serious or violent crimes. In fact, the law allows them to do so when a person has been convicted (or in some cases charged) with a long list of crimes, including some misdemeanors.

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