On May 30, the Connecticut General Assembly passed H.B. 5543, strengthening the 2013 Trust Act, originally intended to provide greater protection for undocumented immigrants in the state from federal deportation. Several immigrant rights groups, along with the Working Family Party of Connecticut, Planned Parenthood of Southern New England, and 32BJ SEIU, the office cleaners and food service workers union, built a coalition that was able to eliminate five of the seven exceptions to protection under the 2013 Trust Act legislation.
The revisions incorporated into two separate bills, helps prevent undocumented immigrants from being deported if they seek assistance from police or other state agencies. Passage of the improved Trust Act places Connecticut in the forefront of states valuing the contributions of immigrants and helping to keep families together.
Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Alok Bhatt, community defense coordinator with the Connecticut Immigrant Rights Alliance. Here he explains how his coalition succeeded in passing the bill to strengthen the Trust Act, and what still remains to be done to match the protections for immigrants that has been signed into law in several other states.
ALOK BHATT: The 2013 Trust Act wasn’t very comprehensive. I think we were the first state in the nation to pass an act like that on a state level, but other states have done it progressively better than we did; we kind of set a pretty low precedent. What the 2013 Trust Act does, it basically limits circumstances in which state and local law enforcement can honor local detainer requests for ICE, and it didn’t require a judicial warrant, it just limited the circumstances.
One of the significant problems with that Trust Act is that it left seven really wide exemptions, like categories that would disqualify people from the Trust Act’s protection, like if you had a prior removal – if people were deported and came back, which many who have families here do, because most people would do anything to reunite with their families. If you have an outstanding warrant, it has a really wide public safety officer discretion loophole. So basically, in a lot of cases, the exceptions were swallowing the rule.
And another really significant problem with the 2013 Trust Act was that within the law there was a section that mandated state or local law enforcement agents to notify ICE of their decision to release or detain an individual. So even if they released an individual, they would still be notifying ICE, basically kind of facilitating ICE’s arrest. And so just over the years we’re seeing a particularly – I think during the escalation of enforcement under the current federal administration – the Trust Act, while effective in some ways was in some ways becoming obsolete, and we wanted to make sure we had a state law that could work for the people in protecting their rights, and the community felt very strongly that we needed to update the Trust Act.
BETWEEN THE LINES: Alok Bhatt, you know only a fraction of bills that are introduced make it through the process. How did your coalition succeed in getting this updated Trust Act passed?
ALOK BHATT: So, I think this year, much more than in previous years, the level of support and organizing on the ground was much more significant. We had community members coming out strong to deliver written and spoken testimony before the Judiciary Committee, when the bill was still sitting in committee during the public hearing. We had a pretty significant social media campaign, including video testimony from members of our community. One testimony in particular I think really inspired Rep. Steven Sastrom, who is the Democratic co-chair of the Judiciary Committee from Bridgeport. Make the Road Connecticut, which has an office in Bridgeport, had a community meeting in which some of their members spoke about how probation officers called ICE on their husband and father, so sharing stories like that via video with a really crack film team really helped spread the stories and the messages and highlighted the human element of this and breaking through the rhetoric to give people a more intimate insight into what immigration enforcement with the collaboration of state and local enforcement really looks like and how it has a direct impact in communities. So I think the multiple levels of community support and active components in the campaign, as far as doing community education, social media, really strong lobbying campaign with folks doing a lot of phoning calling and letter writing, I think all of that really helped culminate in a successful campaign this year.
BETWEEN THE LINES: Five of the exceptions to protection under the 2013 act were eliminated, including the one that affected the most people, being immigrants with a final deportation order. But I know you didn’t get everything you wanted. So what exceptions are still in this updated version?
ALOK BHATT: Well, there was a separate bill that amended Senate Bill 992, which basically enables state or local law enforcement agents to either arrest or detain someone on behalf of ICE, with or without a warrant, if that individual has an A or B level felony conviction in the state or is on the terrorist watch list.
BETWEEN THE LINES: Does passage of this bill put Connecticut back on top of states with better protections for undocumented immigrants?
ALOK BHATT: Unfortunately, no. I think California and Illinois have laws that prohibit ICE holds altogether, absent a judicial warrant. So we’re up there, I’d say maybe in the top five. We’ll definitely be back to fix it. We do want to continue fighting so we’re able to get ICE out of Connecticut, effectively.
For more information on the Connecticut Immigrant Rights Alliance, visit their Facebook page at facebook.com/pages/category/Community-Organization/CTImmigrantRightsAlliance/posts.