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Effort to Block Prison-to-ICE Transfers in California Fails in Final Hours of Legislative Session

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A groups of people march down the street. One woman holds a sign that says: 'Gov. Newsom Pass the #VISION ACT.'
Immigration activists rally in Sacramento on June 21, 2022, urging lawmakers to pass the VISION Act, which would have stopped prison-to-ICE transfers in California. (Joyce Xi, courtesy of the Asian Law Caucus)

California lawmakers rejected a bill that would have blocked state prisons and jails from transferring noncitizens to federal immigration custody after the completion of their sentences.

The so-called VISION Act, which overwhelmingly passed the state Assembly last year, fell three votes short of the 21 needed for approval in the Senate late Wednesday, as lawmakers rushed to wrap up the legislative session.

Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed similar legislation in 2019, saying then that it could “negatively impact prison operations.” The measure also faced stiff opposition from Republican lawmakers and law enforcement organizations, citing public safety concerns.

The Peace Officers Research Association of California said the bill would put “local law enforcement in a no-win situation, having to choose between state and federal laws.”

State law prohibits local police and sheriffs from cooperating with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for some crimes, but those rules don't apply to the prison system.

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The state transferred more than 1,400 incarcerated people to immigration authorities in 2020, according to the Asian Prisoner Support Committee, an advocacy group.

State corrections officials estimated that the bill, had it become law, could have cost the state an additional $22 million a year to supervise more than 2,500 parolees who otherwise would have been deported.

Illinois, Oregon and Washington, D.C., have already ended such transfers, as have at least eight California counties.

State Sen. Susan Eggman, of Stockton, was among the few Democrats who also opposed the bill.

“Our immigration system is broken. It needs to be fixed. I can't do that at my level,” Eggman said, noting her background as a trained social worker and someone who firmly believes in redemption. “But on this bill, I cannot support it ... because at the end of the day, the job I do have is to ensure my community is safe and to do everything I can to ensure the safety of my constituents.”

The transfer issue had drawn increased attention in recent years after a number of noncitizen incarcerated firefighters, who risked their lives battling California blazes, were subsequently turned over to ICE when their sentences ended.

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“Whether you are an American citizen or … a refugee, if you have served your time, you have a right to be treated equally in the state of California,” Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo, D-Los Angeles, argued in support of her bill, AB 937, in advance of the Senate's consideration. She said the state's current policy “has created a dual justice system” that allows for deportations.

Supporters in the Senate said it’s unfair that people who have served their time are subjected to more punishment because they are not citizens, a process they argue effectively inflicts “double punishment.” Many are U.S. residents who fled Southeast Asia as children with their families after the Vietnam War and landed in impoverished and violent neighborhoods, they said.

Activists rallied unsuccessfully last month to stop immigration officials from deporting Phoeun You, a man who had been granted parole earlier this year after spending a quarter century behind bars at San Quentin State Prison for a 1995 homicide. You, 48, was sent to Cambodia, a country he hadn't set foot in since he was 4 years old, when his family fled the Khmer Rouge genocide in the 1970s.

“Yes, they made mistakes as young people and they were incarcerated and punished, but have transformed decades later,” said state Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento. “It’s time to end this violence against the AAPI community.”

State Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, said the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is being “incredibly arrogant” and basically “flipping us the bird” when lawmakers and voters have the power to set sentences for crimes.

“They paid their debt to the state of California, they did their time,” Wiener said.

More than 300 faith leaders signed a letter supporting the bill, which also had the backing of United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta.

"What is happening right now is totally inhumane,” Huerta said during an online news conference before the Senate's consideration. “This is double jeopardy.”

The bill's supporters held it out as another litmus test for Newsom, a Democrat frequently mentioned as a possible presidential contender.

Salvador Sarmiento, legislative director for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, said the measure “is a test whether Gavin Newsom is the type of leadership the country needs right now.”

KQED's Matthew Green and Tyche Hendricks contributed reporting to this story.

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