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California Immigrant Rights Advocates Just Scored a Major Win in Their Battle Against ICE-Police Partnerships

The San Gabriel Police Department's collaboration with federal immigration authorities marks the latest flashpoint in the national debate over how local authorities should react to the Trump administration's focus on undocumented immigrants.
A San Gabriel police officer.

A San Gabriel police officer.

A California city with a robust American immigrant population voted this week to block a partnership between its police force and federal immigration agents. The news comes as a win for immigrant rights advocates and marks the latest flashpoint in a growing national debate over whether local law enforcement can, and should, offer support to a federal administration the rights advocates charge is hostile to immigrants.

The San Gabriel Police Department, which serves a predominantly Asian and Latino American community, signed an agreement with United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in December allowing the department to aid ICE agents. But on Tuesday, legal advocacy group Asian Americans Advancing Justice–Los Angeles, together with several other community and immigrant rights organizations, mobilized San Gabriel community members to oppose the agreement at a City Council meeting addressing whether council members should have been notified before Police Chief Eugene Harris signed the memorandum of understanding with ICE.

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The San Gabriel City Council heard public testimony for and against the partnership into the early hours of the morning Wednesday before it voted three to two to terminate the agreement. The San Gabriel Police Departments' ICE agreement had enabled a police detective to assist ICE in conducting criminal investigations.

"These kinds of agreements are dangerous not just because they might be illegal, but because they erode the trust the community might have with the police," AAAJ-LA supervising attorney Nicole Gon Ochi told Pacific Standard ahead of the city council meeting. When communities fear that police are working with immigration agents, they are less likely to report crimes, Ochi says.

ICE did not respond to Pacific Standard's request for comment on the potential effects of its collaboration.

Speaking with Pacific Standard before Tuesday's City Council meeting, Harris defended his decision to sign off on the agreement. "I appreciate criticism as it serves to keep us honest," he said. "This is neither emotional or political for me. I simply made an administrative decision I feel best protects the members of the San Gabriel community."

Harris also maintained that his agreement conformed with California law, including the recent California Values Act, which bars state facilities from supplying immigration authorities with information and other assistance to aid in deportations. "We are not engaged in any immigration enforcement, round ups, deportations, or other immigration activities. Those are the facts. I believe the residents, both documented and undocumented alike, in San Gabriel are safer because of our partnership," Harris said.

The San Gabriel City Council's decision follows trends in nearby Los Angeles, where the police department has been engaged in an ongoing push to underline that they work independently from ICE, in accordance with the California Values Act.

The standoff between immigrant rights advocates and police in San Gabriel came as California already found itself at the center of a growing debate over whether local law enforcement can constitutionally collaborate with or bar assistance to ICE agents.

Earlier this month, following ICE raids at 7-Eleven locations across the country and murmurs of continued ICE workplace enforcement raids, California authorities underlined safeguards enacted this year to ensure the privacy of California workers. California's Immigrant Worker Protection Act bars employers from providing their employees' personal information to ICE agents without a warrant or subpoena.

But Jonathan Turley, a professor of public interest law at George Washington University, told Pacific Standard last month that California's efforts to bar cooperation between private civilians and federal immigration authorities could backfire in a judicial challenge. Turley pointed out that, in 2012, California filed a brief in the U.S. Supreme Court case Arizona v. United States arguing that an Arizona law allowing local police to collaborate with law enforcement was unconstitutional because it encroached on a matter of federal jurisdiction. The justices ruled in favor of California's argument. In other words, even though Arizona's law aided ICE, it was judged to have overstepped its authority. How then, Turley asked, could California argue that a law barring assistance to federal immigration agents wasn't impeding their efforts?

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Proponents of the Immigrant Worker Protection Act argued that, unlike the Arizona law, California had acted within its jurisdiction to protect Californian worker privacy. Still, if California prosecutes an employer for supplying ICE with workers' personal information, the litigation could result in a judicial challenge that would likely shape how states are and aren't allowed to involve themselves in ICE enforcement.

Wednesday’s decision was not only a win for immigrant rights advocates, but also an opportunity for activists to further engage a community affected by anti-immigrant policy but often marginalized from the national conversation.

The population of San Gabriel is about 64 percent Asian American and about 25 percent Latino American, according to municipal data from 2017. While the battle for comprehensive immigration reform that would allow undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship is often portrayed as a primarily Latino issue, many in the Asian-American community are affected. According to recent estimates by AAPI Data, which studies demographic trends among Asian and Pacific Islander Americans, one in seven of all Asian immigrants is undocumented. But with the exception of organizations like AAAJ, there is apparently less recognition that they exist and are in need of community resources than with their counterparts in the Latino-American community.

AAAJ-LA's Ochi hopes that, with AAAJ-LA's opposition to San Gabriel's cooperation with ICE, more Asian-American community members in San Gabriel will be mobilized to the cause of undocumented immigrants. "This is an important moment for folks in the Asian-American community to see this is an issue that affects them as well," she says.