Local immigration advocates are continuing a push for state laws that would protect undocumented immigrants.
Four immigration-related bills have been taken up this session by the Connecticut General Assembly’s Judiciary Committee.
As they did last session, advocates are asking the state to knock off one day of jail time related to misdemeanor sentencing.
Federal officials recognize sentences of one full year or longer as aggravated felonies. If the offender is undocumented, that attracts the attention of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. Sentencing under a year carries far less risk. The bill calls for a 364-day maximum sentence for a misdemeanor conviction.
“It does have the support of the sentencing commission which regulates sentencing requirements,” said Camila Bortolleto, the co-founder of an undocumented immigrants’ advocacy group called CT Students 4 A Dream.
Last year, a similar bill was proposed but was never signed into law. Bortolleto believes this year will be different.
“We think there’s a good chance, especially because the climate has changed and people are seeing ICE a lot more for what it is, which is: a cruel agency that hurts our communities,” Bortolleto said.
State Rep. Steve Stafstrom (D-Bridgeport) points to misdemeanor crimes like larceny of less than $200 and reckless driving as convictions that right now might give an opportunity for ICE agents to pick up an undocumented immigrant.
“No one here today is suggesting that that individual should not face appropriate consequences for the offense of reckless driving pursuant to our state’s judicial system,” Stafstrom said. “What we are suggesting is: our state judicial system is capable of handling and punishing reckless driving and larceny in the fourth degree without involving the federal government and without the risk of deportation for that individual.”
A bill to stop judicial marshals from using discretion to enforce ICE detainers is another that was also considered last legislative session.
Here, advocates are asking the state legislature to close loopholes in the Connecticut Trust Act – that’s the legislation that’s supposed to separate the work of local law enforcement from that of ICE.
Iva Velickovic, an intern at Yale Law School’s Worker and Immigrants’ Rights Advocacy Clinic, has been looking at detainers – the documents that ICE officials use to identify potential suspects held in local custody.
Velickovic said 56 percent of the detainers analyzed were enforced by a single judicial marshal.
“The Trust Act would limit the discretion that the judicial marshals and other state agencies have over enforcing these detainers,” Velickovic said.
Velickovic and other people representing undocumented immigrants want ICE to obtain an arrest warrant if they want to apprehend someone already detained by local law enforcement. The changes to the Trust Act could force ICE to do that.
“It’s what the FBI has to do,” Velickovic said. “It’s what the DEA has to do.”
Testimony was provided for the immigration bills in a public hearing on Friday, March 8.
That’s where State Sen. Rob Sampson (R-Wolcott) took a hard-line stance against the current version of the Trust Act. He said it’s unconstitutional and protects undocumented immigrants who may pose a threat to society.
“If anyone’s going to come and testify in favor of the bill, be prepared because I’m going to ask you a question why you think that people that fit that list ought to be immune from the federal prosecution that is the law of the land – regardless of what we do in Connecticut,” Sampson said.
Another bill discussed during the public hearing would extend legal representation to immigrants who can’t afford an immigration lawyer during removal proceedings.
Marianne Hebenstreit is part of a project administered by the American Civil Liberties Union, which has monitored immigration court cases in Hartford for the last eight months. She testified that many Connecticut residents who come before an immigration judge are in desperate need of professional legal help.
“I have also witnessed in this court the cruelest of situations that force these men to answer questions to the judge with no legal understanding of the consequences to their answers, with no legal representation,” said Hebenstreit. “They know they must tell the truth, but are completely ill-equipped to defend themselves adequately in this complicated judicial system.
The bill would extend legal counsel to children appearing before a federal immigration judge.
According to the ACLU of Connecticut, 76 percent of Connecticut residents and 65 percent of Connecticut children with cases pending in federal immigration court have no legal representation.
Meanwhile, the fourth immigration-related bill is co-sponsored by House Republicans and state Sen. Sampson. That proposal calls for members of local law enforcement to make sure they’re doing what they can to cooperate with federal law enforcement.