By MARTIN ESPINOZA
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Sonoma County Sheriff Steve Freitas, a strong opponent of a state bill that would limit cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration officials, said this week that he would not oppose the new law if Gov. Jerry Brown signs it.
In a statement to a Latino community advisory group, Freitas said he would comply with the TRUST Act if it becomes law, even though he does not support it.
The TRUST Act, by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, would prohibit local police agencies from holding individuals on federal immigration detainers, or holds, unless they are charged or convicted of a serious felony or certain misdemeanors.
Such holds are a crucial tool used by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to apprehend and deport undocumented immigrants who have committed serious crimes, the primary goal of ICE’s jail-based enforcement policy known as Secure Communities.
But immigration advocates have for years argued that Secure Communities casts a wide net that sometimes ensnares U.S. citizens, legal immigrants and undocumented immigrants jailed for minor offenses or charges that later are dropped. The immigration hold — which can last up to 48 hours beyond the time when an individual otherwise would be released from jail — gives ICE agents enough time to take custody of immigrants who are suspected of being in the country illegally.
Immigration attorneys and advocates have called on local law enforcement to deny immigration holds in cases where no serious crime is involved. A number of legal experts, including California Attorney General Kamala Harris, have said that immigration holds are requests and that local law enforcement can use discretion in some cases.
But Freitas has stated that immigration holds are mandatory. Not enforcing them would be a violation of federal law, he said.
Jesus Guzman, chairman of the North Bay Organizing Project’s immigration task force, said Freitas told him and other immigration advocates last year — when a previous version of the TRUST Act reached the governor’s desk — that he would be “seeking relief from the courts” if the bill was signed by the governor. Brown vetoed the measure.
On Thursday, Freitas said that he still opposes the TRUST Act because it conflicts with a federal mandate. But the sheriff said he would not challenge the law in court, announcing his decision in a statement to a Latino advisory group he created before becoming sheriff three years ago.
“Since I am a California Constitutional Officer, I feel compelled to follow California law, even if I don’t like it. County Counsel tells me that the risk to the County, the Sheriff’s Office and to me as Sheriff would be minimal in this situation,” Freitas wrote.
The statement ends with Freitas saying that “based on the risk being low, and the fact that I will be following a State law, I do not think we should use County money or resources to fight this. If the Feds want to enforce it, they can do that on their own.”
Immigration advocates, who had been asking Freitas to back off what they viewed as threats to challenge the law in court, applauded his statement.
“We really want to thank Sheriff Freitas for doing the right thing here,” Guzman said. “We’re ecstatic. Sheriff Freitas was really that last voice in the State of California saying he would fight the TRUST Act if it passed.”
Under Secure Communities, fingerprints and other biometric data of every person booked into county jails are checked against federal law enforcement databases and those of the Department of Homeland Security. Federal immigration officials are alerted in cases where an individual has a possible immigration violation.
If the TRUST Act becomes law, an immigrant arrested on suspicion of a “straight misdemeanor” or a prior federal deportation order would not be subject to an immigration hold.
Carlos Alcalá, a spokesman for Assemblyman Ammiano, said this year’s version of the TRUST Act has a much better chance of passing than the old bill. He said a number of changes have been made to the legislation that satisfy concerns of both law enforcement and the governor.
“Many of the amendments that were made were things that law enforcement wanted,” Alcalá said. “Essentially, they expanded the list of crimes for which somebody could be held. That was something the governor had requested.”
Last month, 28 members of California’s congressional delegation, including North Coast Representatives Jared Huffman and Mike Thompson, as well as Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, wrote to Brown asking him to sign the law.
Evan Westrup, a spokesman for Brown, said in an email Thursday that the governor’s office is “continuing to work constructively with the author and other stakeholders on this important bill.”
Alcalá said the bill could go up for a vote on the Senate floor as early as today or next week. If passed by the Senate, it would return to the Assembly for approval of changes.