Washington – With a federal crackdown on the undocumented underway, Connecticut’s immigrant advocates who were hoping for help from Democratic state lawmakers are bitterly disappointed the legislators failed to provide any new protections.
“There was a complete lack of political will at a time when it was crucial,” said Alok Bhatt, an activist with the Connecticut Immigrant Rights Alliance, or CIRA. The alliance is a coalition of more than 25 immigration, legal, religious and labor groups in the state that advocate for immigrant rights.
What the advocates wanted, and the General Assembly failed to act upon, was a revision of the state’s TRUST Act, a law approved in 2013 that says state and local law-enforcement agencies can only detain suspects at the request of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) beyond the time of their scheduled release under certain circumstances.
Among the federal requests — called detainers — that the state will honor are those involving undocumented immigrants who have been convicted of a felony, have an outstanding arrest warrant, are involved in gang activity or present “an unacceptable risk to public safety.”
The TRUST Act also allows immigrants who have previously been deported – but never committed a crime — to be held so ICE agents can pick them up.
Immigrant advocates were hoping to change the TRUST Act and limit the detainers Connecticut authorities will honor to those accompanied by a judicial warrant.
The advocates argue that “loopholes” in the TRUST Act continue to allow federal agents to detain individuals without due process.
But the state legislature did not consider legislation amending the TRUST Act, or give it a public hearing.
Beyond the information it gives about people who are subject to detainers, Connecticut has entered into an agreement with ICE, the Department of Homeland Security and other immigration enforcement agencies to share information they collect on the Connecticut On-Line Law Enforcement Communications Teleprocessing system, or COLLECT. That database gives users access to state DMV data, court data, probation information, protective orders, boating certifications, hunting and fishing licenses, and other data.
Immigrant advocates say the state is giving ICE, through the COLLECT database, information about release dates, immigration status and other personal information – including court appearance dates – that have allowed federal agents to detain the undocumented at courthouses or at the offices of their parole or probation officers.
Last month, Connecticut Supreme Court Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers wrote U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Homeland Security Chief John Kelly a letter asking them to bar federal immigration agents from public areas of courthouses by designating them “sensitive locations.”
“I believe having ICE officers detain individuals in public areas of our courthouses may cause litigants, witnesses and interested parties to view our courthouses as places to avoid rather than institutions of fair and impartial justice,” Rogers wrote.
Meanwhile, Sessions and Kelly have ramped up enforcement of federal immigration law and threatened to strip funding from states that don’t comply with federal immigration laws.
They are seeking an overhaul of U.S. Code 1373, a section of law that prohibits local governments from enacting any policy blocking officials from sharing information about the immigration status of anyone with the federal government.
Gov. Dannel Malloy’s administration says it is in compliance with Section 1373, but the changes, if they become law, would clarify the law to require that local governments comply with federal detainer requests to hold inmates beyond their scheduled release dates to give immigration authorities time to pick them up.
The U.S. House and Senate appropriations committees plan to consider the Department of Homeland Security immigration enforcement budget this week, which will contain a provision to expand the reach of Section 1373.
Bhatt said the threat of federal retaliation may be a “component” of the reason Connecticut’s legislature did not change the TRUST Act.. But more likely the “tenuous” position Democrats hold in the state assembly prevented action, he said.
Democrats have a slim majority in the Connecticut House, and the state Senate is equally split, with Democratic Lt. Governor Nancy Wyman casting a tie-breaking vote when necessary.
“Even more troubling is that no bill to address attacks against immigrants and refugees was raised by the (Judiciary) committee,” CIRA Co-leader Ana-Maria Rivera-Forastieri wrote in a recent op-ed.
Adam Joseph, spokesman for Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, said the General Assembly may have shied away from strengthening immigrant protection in the TRUST Act because, “at the time, there was uncertainty what steps the federal government might take about information gathering.”
Joseph said state Democrats did hold the line against proposals that would have “bolstered or mandated cooperation with federal law enforcement policies.”
Besides the statewide protections offered by the TRUST Act, cities like New Haven and Hartford, have immigrant-friendly policies and give their law enforcement officers guidance that says they shouldn’t ask a person’s legal status or cooperate with ICE agents.
“Democrats fought against (those measures) and made sure they were defeated in committee,” Joseph said.
Other “blue” state legislatures are debating bills aimed at shielding immigrants from deportation. The California Senate in April passed the California Values Act that would make it against the law to use state and local resources to “investigate, interrogate, detain, detect, or arrest persons for immigration enforcement purposes.” The bill is awaiting action in the state Assembly.
The Massachusetts legislature also is considering a proposal that would prevent state authorities from holding undocumented immigrants unless an arrest warrant has been issued.
The Illinois legislature also has passed a bill barring police from detaining a person based on their immigration status without a federal criminal warrant.
The Connecticut General Assembly dealt immigrant advocates another blow when it failed again to approve legislation that would make some undocumented youths eligible to apply for a pool of state financial aid to help them pay tuition. The law would have benefitted those who had received or applied for temporary legal status to remain in the United States under an Obama-era program known as the DREAM Act.
In each of the past two sessions, the state Senate has approved the bill that would do so with bipartisan support. But neither the state House nor the Senate acted in the latest session, which ended last week.
Support for the tuition assistance bill faltered after an immigrant activist at the University of Connecticut was arrested and charged with 103 counts of criminal mischief for posting anti-Trump graffiti on campus.
“They used the arrest of the kid as an excuse not to pass the legislation,” Bhatt said.