Jayashri Srikantiah

With an unprecedented conversation about the criminal justice system sweeping the nation, we should look closely at the plight of immigrants in California’s jails. These individuals can suddenly find themselves facing deportation — and separation from family and community — without warning and with no information about their rights.

A bill signed into law today by Gov. Jerry Brown, aptly called the TRUTH Act (AB 2792 by Assemblymember Rob Bonta, D-Oakland), will  take some badly-needed steps to remedy this situation.

Many abuses stem from Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s troubled efforts to rope local law enforcement and jails into the deportation process, which raise significant civil rights and public-safety concerns. Currently, ICE agents can subject immigrants in local jails to interrogations. Neither the jails nor ICE first provide information to the immigrants about their fundamental rights.

That means that immigrants who have called the Golden State home for years can be thrown into the U.S.’s labyrinthine system of detention and deportation without even knowing that they have the fundamental right to remain silent — or to only speak with legal counsel present.

As someone who has studied the effect of representation on deportation case outcomes — and who has represented scores of immigrants — I can speak to the critical importance of a lawyer’s advice to ensuring that immigrants raise the legal claims necessary to stay in the country.

Our local jails should not serve as a staging ground for federal abuses. Taking a page from a policy adopted by New York City, the TRUTH Act would uphold immigrants’ essential rights by ensuring that local jails inform immigrants of these rights and give written consent before speaking with deportation agents. TRUTH would also require sheriffs and police departments to let immigrants know if these agencies plan to turn them over to ICE for deportation.

The act gives immigrants more time to find a lawyer, seek community support, and (if necessary) make the very difficult arrangements for deportation. The TRUTH Act also requires public discussion of local law enforcement’s involvement with deportations, including yearly forums starting in 2018 where the community can make its voice heard.

Given California’s rich immigrant history, these forums are long overdue.

Disclosing this information to the public is also important because for too long, transparency around ICE’s activities has been in short supply. In fact, a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit is now making its way through the federal courts, seeking basic information about one of ICE’s controversial deportation programs.

Ultimately, the Truth Act speaks to a larger reality: deportations carry an immense social and human cost, particularly in a state where half of all children have at least one immigrant parent. Earlier this year, for example, a broken headlight led to the deportation of José Alvarez, a beloved Long Beach father of six U.S. citizens, one a veteran. He had long ago served his time for a 20-year-old drug conviction.

Now, Jose’s family is suffering emotionally and financially. Meanwhile, thousands of immigrant families in the East Bay – and across the state – live in fear that they too could be broken apart at any time.

It’s time to make sure that Jose’s story is not repeated. As a first step, I urge Gov. Brown to sign the TRUTH Act.

Jayashri Srikantiah is a professor of law and the founding director of the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic at Stanford Law School.

This op-ed was originally published by the East Bay Times on September 28, 2016.