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California Debates Bill To Stop Cooperation With Federal Immigration Enforcement


California has been loud and clear about opposing President Trump's deportation efforts. The legislature in Sacramento is considering a bill that would prohibit local police from collaborating with federal immigration agents. But as that bill gets hashed out, lawmakers face a question - how far are they willing to go? Adrian Florido of NPR's Code Switch reports.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Kevin de Leon, the Democratic leader of the California State Senate says that after Donald Trump's election, he felt compelled to respond to Trump's deportation promises. Trump often spoke of enlisting the help of local police. So in December, de Leon introduced Senate Bill 54.

KEVIN DE LEON: The Trump administration - in order for them to be successful in the detainment and deportation of millions of undocumented immigrants, they have to commandeer local police officers, police agencies. We won't allow that.

FLORIDO: The bill he introduced said that local police and sheriffs could not work with federal immigration or ICE agents in any way - no giving ICE access to local jails or inmate databases, no turning immigrants they arrest over to ICE agents. No exceptions, says Jessica Karp Bansal, an attorney and advocate who's helped with the bill's language.

JESSICA KARP BANSAL: When it originally started, it was a very bright-line rule: our police are not involved in immigration.

FLORIDO: But political pressure has come to bear on the bill. It now includes exceptions, allowing police to turn over immigrants convicted of certain violent felonies. As the bill has evolved, it's served as a kind of reality check on how far California is really willing to go to protect immigrants in the country illegally and which immigrants. The state is home to more unauthorized immigrants than any other, so the bill's supporters and opponents agree that where the bill ends will set a precedent.

KARP BANSAL: California has become a symbol. And what California is able to do sort of sets the line for what other states and counties are able to do.

FLORIDO: Yet despite its liberal reputation, California has a lot of conservative areas, like agricultural Kern County. Its Sheriff, Donny Youngblood, is president of the powerful state sheriffs' association.

DONNY YOUNGBLOOD: Anytime you have a bill that limits your ability to communicate with other law enforcement partners, we're going to be against it.

FLORIDO: In major cities like LA and San Francisco, law enforcement has been more open to limiting cooperation with immigration agents but not here in Kern County.

YOUNGBLOOD: We actually have ICE agents that work out of our jail, and they have access to the database. They can decide who they want to deport and who they don't. They don't explain to us what crimes they're deporting for.

FLORIDO: That kind of cooperation is exactly what the proposed bill wants to end. At the same time, the sheriff's opposition has helped water down the bill. Last week, as the sun cast a late afternoon glow across the almond and orange groves of the Central Valley, protesters gathered outside Sheriff Youngblood's office in Bakersfield. They staged a little theater. The scene...

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #1: (Imitating siren sounding).

FLORIDO: ...The sheriff pulling over a farmworker.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: (As character) I think you have a broken tail light. Do you notice that? Where are you from? Are you from Mexico?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #3: (As character) Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: (As character) I knew it. I'll come right back. I'm going to go make a call.

FLORIDO: The sheriff calls an immigration agent who shows up and asks for the man's papers.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #4: (As character, yelling) Papeles. Busco papeles.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #4: (As character, yelling) Tienes papeles?

FLORIDO: Pablo Alvarado, director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, led this protest. He wants Senate Bill 54 to protect all immigrants, regardless of their criminal past.

PABLO ALVARADO: Look, it's very difficult to advocate for people who have committed crimes. There's no doubt about that. From our standpoint, as immigration - as immigrant rights advocates, I certainly don't accept deportation as a proper form of punishment.

FLORIDO: His concern is that allowing police to turn even immigrants with serious felonies over to ICE gives fuel to a narrative that most immigrants are criminals. Senator de Leon says he hears this concern but also sees political reality. The bill still has to get through the state assembly and gain the governor's support.

DE LEON: We don't live in a world of absolutes. Nothing ever gets out 100 percent in its purity.

FLORIDO: He said that even with the amendments to the bill, it will still protect the vast majority of California's unauthorized immigrants should they find themselves picked up or pulled over by police. Adrian Florido, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.