What the VISION Act does and does not do: A response to Chris Catren’s inaccurate and incendiary press release.

The VISION Act (AB 937) ends the double punishment of Californians based on their place of birth.

An open letter to Police Chief Vice President, Chris Catren:

I have deep respect for law enforcement and the men and women entrusted to protect our communities. I write in response to the press release you issued opposing AB 937, on behalf of the Police Chief Association. AB 937, the Voiding Inequality and Seeking Inclusion for Our Immigrant Neighbors (VISION) Act, has been presented in five different Committees in the California Legislature over the course of the past nine months. Unfortunately, not once have you personally reached out to me or my office to discuss the content of the press release you issued. So let’s do so now.

First, let’s clarify what the VISION Act does and does not do. The VISION Act does protect against the use of state and local resources to engage in or assist with immigration arrests — arrests usually made by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials of rehabilitated Californians who are supposed to be reunited with their families and community. In other words, this bill ensures that once a person has earned release from state or local custody, they are not transferred to abusive and possibly deadly ICE detention, so they can reunite with their loved ones and rebuild their lives. The VISION Act does not impact who is eligible for release from prison or jail or their release date. The bill does ensure equal treatment of Californians who have earned release, rather than double punishment based on where the community member was born. If you need any additional clarification, you may click here to review the key facts about parole, release, and the VISION Act.

Second, I’d like to address the many inaccurate and incendiary comments you made in your press release — comments that read like a last ditch effort to rely on xenophobic fear mongering and racist dog whistles to undercut a piece of legislation that has won the approval of Public Safety, Judiciary, and Appropriations Committees in the Assembly and Senate.

You start off your letter by stating “California has some of the strongest Sanctuary State laws in the nation.” Unfortunately, that is not true. The Governors of Illinois and Oregon recently signed legislation in July that ends all entanglement with ICE, including all ICE transfers. Washington DC enacted a similar policy back in 2020. California is currently behind a number of other states and the current ongoing practice of local and state law enforcement funnelling community members to ICE has led to an estimated 3,000 immigrants a year being sent to ICE detention facilities that are rife with medical neglect and human rights abuses. This includes Southeast Asian refugees and incarcerated firefighters Phi Pham, Bounchan Keola and Kao Saelee, domestic violence survivors Gabby Solano, Liyah Birru, Ny Nourn and many others who were transferred to ICE and now have led efforts across the state to advance the VISION Act.

The VISION Act (AB 937) would stop jails and prisons from conducting these unnecessary ICE transfers.

Your letter goes on to tout the “important exemptions our police chiefs were given in previous sanctuary state legislation.” We are well aware of these exemptions. They are loopholes. In fact, a number of local and state law enforcement agencies drive trucks through these exemptions — turning what was marketed as an exception into the rule — continuously turning over thousands of Californians to ICE each year. Which was always your intention.

In CA Police Chiefs Association executive team meeting notes, dated Sept. 14, 2017, (which is when these exceptions were added in) your association bragged to your members that with regards to SB 54 that “[t]here are loopholes you can exploit.” The purpose of the VISION is to close these loopholes and establish a bright line rule against entanglement with ICE so that California gets out of the business of funnelling community members to immigration detention and deportation.

And your letter goes to great lengths to argue for continued participation in joint taskforces that result in immigration arrests. I’d like to address that. SB 54 prohibits joint taskforce operations when immigration enforcement is the primary purpose. The VISION Act would prohib joint taskforce operations when immigration enforcement is one of the purposes. The VISION Act includes this reform because it has been near impossible to enforce this provision in SB 54 as some law enforcement agencies would just claim the primary purpose of a joint taskforce was criminal enforcement even though immigration arrests were conducted. See SB 54 implementation report here.

To be clear, the VISION Act allows local law enforcement to continue to participate in joint taskforces — if the joint taskforce is actually engaged in criminal enforcement operations and not acting as a cover for a civil immigration enforcement raid. What the VISION Act doesn’t allow is for local police to detain and hand immigrants over to ICE for deportation when they do not have probable cause to arrest or prosecute these community members for criminal enforcement purposes. This violates the due process rights of immigrants in California and it’s an unconscionable position that ICE has been pushing for at least a decade. Back in 2008, an ICE official told attendees at the Police Foundation National Conference that if they don’t have enough evidence to charge a person criminally and they think the person is undocumented, to just hand them to ICE to make them “disappear.” This unjust practice should end in California.

Those whose mission it is to protect and serve all Californians should not act as ICE agents.

Finally, your letter ends with good old fashioned Trumpian fear mongering about immigrants, even going so far as to assert that the current humanitarian crisis in the Middle East will lead to “real risks.” I must take strong issue with this racist dog whistling. Let’s focus on the facts. Counties with policies that have ended entanglement with ICE are safer. Many studies have shown, including a 2017 study from UC San Diego that found that “[t]here are, on average, 35.5 fewer crimes committed per 10,000 people” in counties that do not turn people over to ICE versus counties that do funnel people to ICE. In addition, numerous studies have shown that immigrants have a 50% lower incarceration rate than individuals born in the U.S. And regarding your reference to refugees fleeing Afghanistan, it’s important to note that these are human beings who put their lives in the line to defend and support American soldiers. After four years of a recently defeated president who used demonization of immigrants for political gain, let us stop this racist rhetoric and hold up values of equality, compassion, common humanity, inclusion, and transformation.

And let’s also be clear that the VISION Act addresses racial injustice. ICE transfers, detention, and deportation amplify the racial disparities in the criminal legal system. While Black immigrants make up 7% of the non-citizen population in the U.S., they make up 20% of immigrants facing deportation based on a criminal conviction. ICE targets Black, Latinx, and API individuals who have already completed their sentences, earned release, and strive to rebuild their lives. That’s why the Black, Latinx, and API Legislative Caucuses and over 180 community-based organizations have prioritized this urgently needed bill.

The simple fact is, if you had empirical evidence that the status quo served the greater good — the status quo that double punishes Californians like formerly incarcerated fire fighter Phi Pham and domestic violence survivor Liyah Birru because of where they were born — you would present it. Because you don’t have any empirical evidence that the status quo serves the greater good you are doubling down on the spectre of cartoonish boogeymen. You know perfectly well that the Board of Parole does not release Californians who have not demonstrated their rehabilitation. They are the experts. If they have determined that a person has paid their debt to society and has a strong reentry plan, then that is the standard to which all Californians should be held. Immigrants who have served their sentences and have strong reentry plans should return to their loved ones and homes, just like Californians who are born in the US. If your ultimate argument is that judges who hand out sentences and the Board of Parole are failing to do their jobs, then that is an issue that you must take up with them separately. The VISION Act does not change anything about sentencing or parole.

Domestic violence survivor Liyah Birru was threatened with deportation simply because she is not a US citizen.

The VISION Act upholds the most sacred principle upon which the entire bedrock of our democracy relies: All are created equal. All should have equal protection under the law. If we cannot agree on this point, then there is nothing left to discuss. I ask my colleagues in the legislature to stand with immigrants and vote AYE on the VISION Act.

In Service,

Assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo (AD-51, Los Angeles)

Assemblywoman Carrillo represents East LA, Northeast LA, and the neighborhoods of El Sereno, Echo Park, Lincoln Heights, Chinatown and parts of Silver Lake.