In less than a week, Connecticut effectively gave U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (and the Obama Administration) a slap in the face and then backhanded them for good measure.
The first hit was the General Assembly’s approval of allowing law-abiding but undocumented immigrants to get Connecticut driver’s licenses. The second blow was passage of what’s been called a “Trust Act,” which puts tight restrictions on which immigrants can be transferred to ICE custody for deportation.
And Gov. Dannel Malloy is a supporter of both.
“I think Connecticut is becoming the anti-Arizona,” says a delighted Megan Fountain, an activist with the New Haven-based Unidad Latina en Accion. “I think Connecticut has made the decision to say, ‘Yes, there are limits on what ICE can do.’”
Michael Lawlor, Malloy’s top criminal justice advisor, says both bills are essentially state “work-arounds” to patch up problems with a federal immigration system that “everyone agrees is broken.”
“If the feds would fix their laws, which they now seem willing to do… none of this stuff would be necessary,” Lawlor says.
A spokesman for ICE says his agency normally doesn’t comment on state immigration policies and declined comment on the actions by Connecticut lawmakers.
Connecticut officials and activists say both the driver’s license bill and the “Trust Act” are needed to help enforce state laws. If immigrants can’t drive legally, they point out, they’ll drive illegally and without auto insurance. And restricting ICE actions in Connecticut can help restore trust between the immigrant community and local police.
Activists say the current federal policies are forcing Connecticut’s estimated 120,000 undocumented immigrants to break the law and to avoid cooperating with law enforcement.
The Connecticut “Trust” legislation may as well be called the “Jose Maria Islas Law.” Islas is a hard-working undocumented immigrant who is being deported under the Obama Administrations highly controversial “Secure Communities” or S-Comm program.
S-Comm has resulted in hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants being picked up and deported. Many were arrested by local police for minor things such as fender benders or driving without a license or insurance, and then later turned over to ICE. Law enforcement officials say that has led to immigrants being afraid to report crimes to police or cooperate with cops in any way.
Public anger over S-Comm deportations of people who committed no serious crimes led Malloy last year to order that all ICE detainer requests in Connecticut be reviewed to make sure that only really nasty criminals were turned over to ICE. But there was a big loophole in Malloy’s policy that Islas fell right through.
Islas is an undocumented immigrant from New Haven who was on his lunch break from his job at a Hamden factory when he was picked up by local cops last June. According to Islas’ supporters, the police arrested him because they were looking for a “brown man” wanted in an attempted bike theft and he fit the bill.
But Islas had nothing to do with the theft. In fact, his only violation was that he’d attempted several times in 2005 to enter the U.S. from Mexico before he finally made it.
ICE itself now has a policy that is supposed to result in only dangerous criminals being deported under S-Comm. Despite that policy and pleas from local, state and congressional officials from Connecticut, Islas is being deported.
The bill that won final legislative approval in the General Assembly without opposition last week will extend Malloy’s policy on ICE detainer requests to all judicial and local law enforcement officials as well as state agencies.
Lawlor says judicial officials have already been “complying with it voluntarily” for the past few months.
“It honors ICE’s official policy, which is to focus on serious offenders,” Lawlor says.
“The vast majority of our undocumented residents are hardworking and law-abiding,” says state Senate Majority Leader Martin M. Looney of New Haven, “and should not fear that interacting with local police could lead to their deportation.”
Those same sort of sentiments lead to legislative approval of a bill to allow undocumented immigrants to get Connecticut driver’s licenses. But the state Senate vote on that was a much closer 19-16 tally, with Republicans and a few Democrats insisting it shouldn’t be this state’s job to fix the federal immigration system.
The driver’s license bill won’t take effect until Jan. 1, 2015. On that date, an estimated 54,000 undocumented immigrants might be eligible to apply for licenses.
Under the new law, immigrants would have to supply identification of some sort to prove who they claim to be, and would need to clear a felony record check in Connecticut and other states.
Despite those conditions, some GOP legislators claimed the licensing bill could make it easier for terrorists to get state IDs and to operate in the U.S. — a claim dismissed by the bill’s supporters.
Lawlor says the driver’s license bill, the Trust legislation and the Islas case are all indicators of the increasingly urgent need for major reform of federal immigration laws and policy.
“ICE is in the position of enforcing unenforceable laws,” Lawlor adds, “and I don’t envy them.”