by William Kelly
SB 54 has been called “the sanctuary state bill,” the “freeze out ICE [Immigration and Customs enforcement]” bill, and somewhat crudely a “middle finger” to the Trump administration. The bill’s official name is “The California Values Act” and that name is fitting because the contents of SB 54 will reveal a lot about what Californians value.
Will we measure the success or failure of SB 54 in splashy headlines and how fired up it gets the Democratic base for the 2018 midterm elections, or in families kept whole and how well it protects California’s most vulnerable communities?
A previous version of the bill was widely praised by immigrant rights advocates including the hundreds of Californians who attended a rally in support of the bill at the state Capitol on March 16th. However, on March 29th SB 54 was amended, according to the Senate floor analysis, “to address issues raised by law enforcement,” and many of the changes appear to undermine the protections promised in the previous version of the bill. The amendments to the bill are numerous, and at times nuanced, but they fall into roughly two groups.
The first group of amendments allow local and state law enforcement to collect information about individual’s immigration status and to share some of this information — potentially including home and work addresses — with federal authorities. This information sharing can also happen under the auspices of a joint task force as long as immigration enforcement is not the primary purpose of the task force, though the bill does not provide a definition of “primary purpose.”
The bill does stipulate that only information that is available to the public may be shared, but again the phrase “available to the public” is never defined, potentially leaving individual police departments to come up with their own working definitions. If this language is interpreted to include any information that can be found on the internet, as well as deeds, court records, and newspapers, then these amendments would allow police departments to act as local intelligence gathering stations for ICE.
The second group of amendments removes protections for individuals with certain past criminal convictions. A few of these provisions only pertain to convictions for violent crimes, but others provisions strip away protections for people who have been convicted of some non-violent crimes including drug offenses and felony violations of the Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention (STEP) Act.
The STEP Act is a 1988 California law that gives harsher prison sentences to individuals who are determined to be gang members or gang affiliates. The Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice has said that the STEP Act is “vague” and “fosters institutional racism,” noting that juveniles have at times been labeled gang affiliates for “actions as insignificant as waving to acquaintances whom authorities deem as gang-involved.”
By exempting individuals with these types of convictions at any time in their past from some of the most important protections provided in SB 54 the Senate has effectively extended the widespread racial and socio-economic bias in drug enforcement and the juvenile justice system into California immigration enforcement.
Now that the Senate has passed SB 54 with these amendments it is the Assembly’s turn to craft their own version of the bill. Before that happens it is imperative that the Senate clarify their intentions to their colleagues in the Assembly and to the public.
Now is the time for Californians to call their legislators and demand that they take a stand on these amendments. The people of California have a right to know what the law will be, undocumented residents have a need to know what protections the state will and will not provide, and elected officials have an obligation to explain themselves.