SACRAMENTO While America's debate over immigration has been dominated recently by crackdowns in states like Arizona and Alabama, California legislators are trying to turn that tide with a bill to protect illegal immigrants that they dub the "anti-Arizona."
Last week, the top U.S. court upheld the most controversial aspect of Arizona's immigration statute: a requirement that police officers check the immigration status of people they stop, even for minor offenses such as jay-walking.
Enter California, a border state that is home to the largest number of illegal immigrants, most of whom are Hispanic, and is considerably more liberal than its neighbor Arizona.
A bill currently working its way through the California legislature would block local law enforcement from referring a detainee to immigration officials for deportation unless that person has been convicted of a violent or serious felony.
"California cannot afford to become another Arizona," said California Assembly member Tom Ammiano, the bill's sponsor. One of the bill's sponsors, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, calls the effort the "anti-Arizona."
Critics have argued that Arizona's law could lead to illegal racial or ethnic profiling of Hispanics in Arizona. Hispanics are the largest U.S. minority group, representing 16 percent of the population.
Supporters of the Arizona law say it is needed because the federal government has failed to secure the border with Mexico.
The California bill, which has the support of over 100 immigrant rights groups, police chiefs and mayors, was drafted not only as a symbolic counter to legislation in neighboring Arizona, but also to push back against a federal program called Secure Communities that shares the same principles as Arizona's law, supporters say.
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, or ICE, established the Secure Communities program in partnership with local law enforcement agencies and the FBI to deport unauthorized immigrants.
Local authorities send fingerprints of those arrested to ICE, which says it prioritizes deporting individuals with criminal convictions. The program was credited as a factor in that agency's highest-ever number of deportations, nearly 400,000 in 2011.
"(Secure Communities) has burdened our local governments and put even victims and witnesses of crime at risk of deportation, making us all less safe," Ammiano said in a statement. "It has even mistakenly trapped U.S. citizens in our local jails for immigration purposes."
The federal program has been responsible for deporting over 72,000 Californians, according to Ammiano, with 70 percent of those deported from the state having either no criminal conviction, or conviction for a minor offense.
Critics have lambasted the program for placing victims of domestic violence in deportation proceedings and deterring immigrants from reporting crimes committed against them.
But the California State Sheriff's Association, which opposes the bill, said that state and local authorities cannot opt out of the Secure Communities program, and that ICE focuses on only the most serious cases, such as convicted criminals and repeat offenders.
The bill, already passed by the state Assembly in a 47-26 vote, now awaits a decision by the state Senate. That vote could come as early as this Thursday, but may be delayed until after legislators take a one-month summer recess beginning next week.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Cynthia Osterman)