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Undocumented Immigrants In Calif. Will Benefit From New Laws

California's Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a group of bills related to immigration because, he said, enough time has passed.
California's Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a group of bills related to immigration because, he said, enough time has passed.

The federal government remains shut down over a budget stalemate, but California's Gov. Jerry Brown decided not to wait for Congress to make decisions on the Gordian knot that is U.S. immigration policy. On Saturday, Brown signed into law a group of bills related to immigration because, he said, enough time has passed.

"While Washington waffles on immigration, California's moving ahead," Brown stated. He added, with trademark bluntness, "I'm not waiting."

The "Trust Act" Vs. "Secure Communities"

One of the most important components of the multibill package forbids local law enforcement personnel to detain for deportation immigrants who are here illegally if the crimes for which they have been apprehended are minor and nonviolent. (Violent crimes such as child molestation and felonies are exceptions.)

The so-called Trust Act (its official name is California Assembly Bill 4, or AB4) is designed to counteract the Secure Communities immigration program that the Obama administration started. Secure Communities requires immigration status checks of everyone held in local jails.

Immigration rights activists say Secure Communities has resulted in thousands of deportations for people with no criminal records and who have been taken in for minor offenses such as loitering. (Anti-loitering laws have figured prominently in disputes over day labor markets that have sprung up around the country.)

Under Secure Communities, if a person is discovered to be in the country without the proper documents, the federal government asks local law enforcement to hold the violator until he can be taken into federal custody. Both immigration rights advocates and local law enforcement have complained about the procedure — albeit for different reasons.

Advocates say the detentions are often applied to the wrong person because of bureaucratic snafus and have resulted in hundreds of people being deported who should not have been. And many local police feel their already-strained intakes are being further burdened by the additional detainees. The new Trust Act should ease some of the paperwork backlog and detention density.

Law enforcement agencies in some parts of California, including Los Angeles County, were beginning to operate in ways similar to the Trust Act even before it went into law. Lee Baca, sheriff of Los Angeles County's sprawling (and woefully overcrowded) network of jails and prisons, announced in December that he would not be adhering to Secure Communities' deportation guidelines. A spokesman for Baca called the new law "practical and reasonable."

Removing Shadow Status

The new laws are expected to help bring the approximate 11 million people without papers who are often described as "living in the shadows" out into the open, so they may take part more fully in American life without fear of deportation. One bill signed earlier in the week will allow illegal immigrants to apply for and receive California driver's licenses. Another will make it a crime for someone to threaten an undocumented person with deportation.

Under the new law, employers who threaten employees with deportation will find themselves facing stiff fines and, possibly, the loss of their business licenses.

The bills Brown signed into law mean there is now one statewide standard that outlines the rights of people who are here illegally. Angela Chan, an attorney at Asian Americans Advancing Justice, told the Los Angeles Times that the Trust Act could prevent upwards of 20,000 immigrants from being deported by federal authorities annually.

And they may finally be able to receive help from people who weren't in a position to give aid: The most recent bill allows people who are here illegally to apply for professional licenses.

The inspiration for that may be Sergio Garcia, a 36-year-old law school graduate who passed the California bar on his first try in 2009 but has yet to be licensed. A 1996 state law prohibited government agencies from funding such professional licenses. Now Garcia, who entered the country with his parents as a toddler, left years after and returned at 17, will get official recognition that he's an attorney.

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Karen Grigsby Bates
Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.