California bill would keep courts from exposing immigration status

(The Center Square) – Hoping to expand protections for undocumented immigrants in court, a California legislator introduced a bill this week that would permanently protect a person’s immigration status in public court records.

Senate Bill 836 expands on provisions of an existing bill, SB 785, which was signed into law by former Gov. Jerry Brown in 2018. The existing legislation protects a person’s immigration status in open court unless a presiding judge determines it’s relevant to a case.

The initial bill had a sunset date of Jan. 1, 2022, so Sen. Scott Wiener, the author of SB 785, introduced SB 836 on Friday to remove the sunset date and guarantee a person’s immigration status is permanently protected in cases where it is not deemed relevant.

“Our justice system will only work when people can come forward to testify without fearing retribution,” Wiener said in a statement. “When a person’s immigration status is irrelevant, exposing it is wrong, and it harms the integrity of our courts. No one should have to fear deportation when coming forward about a crime they’ve experienced or witnessed.

“SB 836 will ensure that undocumented immigrants continue to have protection in our courts from unnecessary exposure of their immigration status.”

Expanding the legislation permanently would mean attorneys could not question a witness about their immigration status unless a judge determined relevance. Wiener said before these protections were put in place by SB 785, there were “numerous documented examples” of defense attorneys exposing the immigration status of witnesses even when it was not relevant to the case.

Proponents of the bill said the legislation would help maintain access to justice for all state residents, regardless of immigration status.

“By preventing unnecessary disclosures of a person’s immigration status in open court, SB 836 enables residents to exercise their rights without fearing their immigration status will be weaponized against them as a tool of intimidation,” Marisa Díaz, senior staff attorney with Legal Aid at Work, said in a statement. “This benefits all Californians and our justice system at large.”

Before SB 785 was signed into law, California Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye wrote a letter to former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and former Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly in 2017 to express concern about circulating reports of immigration agents “stalking undocumented immigrants in our courthouses to make arrests.”

“Our courthouses serve as a vital forum for ensuring access to justice and protecting public safety,” Cantil-Sakauye wrote. “Courthouses should not be used as bait in the necessary enforcement of our country’s immigration laws.”

Sessions and Kelly responded to the letter, calling the justice’s concerns “particularly troubling,” but claimed California enacted statutes that “specifically prohibit or hinder ICE from enforcing immigration law” by “denying requests by ICE officers and agents to enter prisons and jails to make arrests.”

“As a result, ICE officers and agents are required to locate and arrest these aliens in public places, rather than in secure jail facilities where the risk of injury to the public, the alien, and the officer is significantly increased because the alien can more readily access a weapon, resist arrest, or flee,” the letter said.

More than a year after this exchange between state and federal officials, federal data revealed that immigration agents were arresting more undocumented immigrants without a criminal record under the Trump administration compared to previous administrations, according to reports from USA Today.

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