SACRAMENTO (Reuters) - The California Senate passed a bill on Thursday that seeks to shield illegal immigrants from status checks by local police and challenges Republican-backed immigration crackdowns in Arizona and other U.S. states.
The Democrat-led state Senate voted 21 to 13 to approve the California Trust Act, dubbed by supporters as the "anti-Arizona" bill. It blocks local police from referring a detainee to immigration officials for deportation unless that person has been convicted of a violent or serious felony.
"Today's vote signals to the nation that California cannot afford to be another Arizona," Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, a Democrat who sponsored the measure, said in a statement.
"The bill also limits unjust and onerous detentions for deportation in local jails of community members who do not pose a threat to public safety," he added.
The bill has the backing of about 100 immigrant rights groups, police chiefs and mayors. It has already passed the Democrat-controlled state Assembly in a 47-26 vote and will go back to the Assembly for a concurrence vote following the summer recess before heading to Democratic Governor Jerry Brown.
The measure seeks to create a national model to counter what backers say is racial profiling inherent in a part of Arizona's crackdown on illegal immigration that was allowed to stand by the U.S. Supreme Court last week.
In passing the bill, California stands apart not only from Arizona, but also Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Utah, which have all adopted strict laws in the past two years to try to discourage illegal immigrants from settling in their states.
On June 25, 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.
Opponents have argued that Arizona's law could lead to illegal racial or ethnic profiling of Hispanics in the state, while backers say it is needed because the federal government has failed to secure the border with Mexico.
California's bill also seeks to push back against a federal program called Secure Communities, which supporters of Thursday's bill say shares similar principles to Arizona's law.
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 those with criminal records. The program was credited as a factor in that agency's nearly 400,000 deportations in 2011, its highest number ever.
The California State Sheriff's Association, which opposes the bill approved on Thursday, could not immediately be reached for comment. It has said previously that state and local authorities cannot opt out of the Secure Communities program.
It also said that ICE focuses on only the most serious cases involving convicted criminals and repeat offenders.
Ammiano said that the federal program has been responsible for deporting over 72,000 Californians, with 70 percent of those deported from the state having either no criminal convictions, or convictions 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.
California has the largest population of undocumented immigrants in the United States, with nearly 2.6 million at the start of 2010, according to government figures.