California Seeking to Curtail Spread of Immigrant Detention Centers in State

California advanced new measures intended to block the growth of immigrant detention facilities here and fund $45 million in new spending over three years that could provide free attorneys for immigrants facing deportation.

The new policies passed as part of a package of bills that accompanied the state's $125 billion budget deal, and are the latest moves by the state to attempt to shield the nation's largest population of illegal immigrants.

California is home to about 2.6 million of the 10.9 million undocumented immigrants estimated to be living in the U.S., according to the Center for Migration Studies, a nonprofit based in New York.

Late Thursday, both houses of the Democratic-controlled state legislature passed a bill that blocks local governments and law enforcement from making new contracts or expanding existing contracts with the federal government to detain undocumented immigrants. The bill also gives new powers to the state's attorney general to review conditions at immigrant-detention facilities in the state.

Both houses also voted to modify and expand an existing legal fund administered through the state's Department of Social Services so attorneys could provide deportation defense. The state's budget allocates an extra $15 million a year for three years to that fund.

Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown is expected to sign all of the measures.

Under Republican President Donald Trump, immigration agents have been successful in increasing their pace of arrests of illegal immigrants.

Through executive orders, the president has also sought to crack down on cities that limit cooperation with federal immigration enforcement and institute restrictions on U.S. entry for people from six Muslim-majority countries. Federal courts have blocked those efforts.

State Senate President Kevin de León said California is enacting policies in response to "mean-spirited, divisive rhetoric from the White House" and Congress' "dereliction of duty" for not "normalizing the status of millions of people who have been here for decades."

State Sen. Mike Morrell of Rancho Cucamonga, a Republican who represents a portion of the Inland Empire, the region east of Los Angeles that has both a large immigration population and active conservative groups, opposed the measures.

"America has a long tradition of welcoming law-abiding immigrants," Mr. Morrell said. "However, with the actions being taken by California Democrats to severely limit cooperation between state and local law enforcement and their federal counterparts, the safety of our families and friends is being jeopardized."

Nikki Marquez, an attorney with the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, an immigration advocacy group, said the limitations on detention will make it more expensive and difficult for U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement to expand in the state.

Oversight by the attorney general is necessary to ensure immigrants are kept in safe conditions, she said.

"The hope is this will be a model for other states," Ms. Marquez said of the bill limiting detention contracts and adding oversight by the attorney general. "There needs to be some level of increased review and oversight in terms of conditions and confinement."

An ICE official said the agency uses a variety of facilities throughout the country "to meet the agency's detention needs while achieving the highest possible cost savings for the taxpayer."

"Placing limitations on ICE's detention options here in California won't prevent the agency from detaining immigration violators," said the official, who declined to be named because the agency says it has a policy against commenting on pending legislation.

"It will simply mean ICE will have to transfer individuals encountered in California to detention facilities outside the state, at a greater distance from their family, friends, and legal representatives," the official said. Detention facilities "must already meet rigorous performance standards."

The new California policies would build on multiple efforts to shield immigrants in the state from deportation.

A state law that went into effect earlier this year allows some immigrants to challenge their past convictions so they are less vulnerable to deportations targeting undocumented immigrants with criminal convictions.

The state legislature this year is also considering a proposal by Mr. de León that would prohibit law-enforcement agencies from investigating or detaining people for the purposes of immigration enforcement.

That measure, which has been dubbed the "sanctuary state" proposal and the subject of fierce debate, passed in the state Senate earlier this year and this week advanced through an Assembly committee on public safety.

Dave Ray, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which supports restrictions on immigration into the U.S. and further enforcement of laws against illegal immigration, said that while it supported "adequate conditions" at detention facilities, it was not California's place "to be making those determinations."

More broadly, Mr. Ray said the state's policies were taking it in the wrong direction.

"California's going out of its way to shield illegal aliens from the consequences of their actions, yet it's perfectly happy to punish U.S. citizens when they break the laws," he said. "The state seems to be endlessly dedicated to ensuring that those who violate our immigration laws skirt the consequences."

The state is also rethinking how it adjudicates traffic infractions, potentially paving a new way for the state to protect undocumented immigrants.

Last month, a 17-person panel of justices, judges, attorneys and parole officers presented a recommendation to California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye to try minor traffic infractions in civil court instead of criminal court.

Ms. Cantil-Sakauye "wholeheartedly" backed the idea and last month directed the Judicial Council to draft a proposal to state lawmakers.

The proposal would help insulate undocumented immigrants charged with a range of minor traffic infractions -- like driving with a broken taillight -- from a wide deportation net targeting those charged with a criminal offense.

Ms. Cantil-Sakauye said the proposal wasn't motivated by immigration enforcement, but the panel weighed the proposal's implications for undocumented immigrants.

"I have spoken up and looked to reform all that can be improved and maintain equal access to justice...for people who are citizens, people who are residents, for people who are here without the appropriate papers," Ms. Cantil-Sakauye said.

Write to Alejandro Lazo at

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

June 16, 2017 10:47 ET (14:47 GMT)