California Gov. Jerry Brown has signed off on a new state law that prevents the disclosure of confidential juvenile records to federal immigration authorities without a court order.
Assembly Bill 899, which Brown signed Friday, mandates that records for those in the juvenile justice system remain confidential “regardless of the juvenile’s immigration status,” and prohibits the disclosure and dissemination of juvenile information to federal officials unless a juvenile court grants permission.
In short, the new law makes it clear that the long-standing practice by some probation agencies in California of referring juveniles suspected of being undocumented to immigration authorities is illegal.
The controversial practice was contested for years by legal scholars, attorneys and immigrant youth advocates who said the referrals violated the state’s existing law protecting juvenile confidentiality as well as the constitutional rights of vulnerable youth in the juvenile justice system, including those with mental health and developmental issues.
Probation officials across the state -- from Orange County to Santa Barbara to San Mateo -- have disputed these assertions. They've claimed the referrals are legally sound, citing a federal law that not only protects their right to communicate and cooperate with immigration authorities, but which they said also supersedes state law.
San Francisco attorney Angie Junck with the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, which helped draft AB 899, said she was relieved with the outcome.
“We are extremely happy and grateful for the leadership in Sacramento that understood that we need to uphold the law for everybody in the state regardless of immigration status,” Junck said. "We understand that there’s a lot of work ahead, but this is an important milestone in upholding due process and equal protection for all minors in our state.”
Junck said she plans to share the legislation with national legal and immigration networks and hopes that California’s efforts will be replicated in other states.
Santa Ana Boys and Men of Color, which has worked to end all juvenile referrals in Orange County, praised the new law as a huge success for the community. The organization focuses on keeping youth in school, out of the juvenile justice system and out of the hands of immigration authorities, and submitted a letter to state legislators in support of the bill.
“We’re really excited to hear the news,” said Abraham Medina, the organization’s youth engagement coordinator. "Even though the county had a legal interpretation and we were advocating a different interpretation, the state law will require them to follow the process.”
Some probation agencies, including Orange County, altered their procedures over the last three years and limited the circumstances under which youth could be referred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which investigates immigration law violations.
But immigration attorneys representing the minors said the changes did not go far enough as existing procedures still give probation officials the discretion to refer juveniles and release their confidential information to ICE.
These probation agencies have continued to report and turn juveniles over to ICE, albeit in significantly smaller numbers.
The disconnect between the state’s confidentiality juvenile law and federal law allowing probation agencies to communicate with ICE, left opponents of the practice and probation agencies at an impasse. It’s unclear whether this new law will entirely resolve this conflict between the state and federal laws.
Orange County Probation Department Spokesman Edward Harrison wrote in an email that the agency is reviewing its procedures and will be making the appropriate changes.
“The Probation Department is an integral part of the criminal justice system and as such, is responsive to legislative changes,” wrote Harrison.
The agency has been the subject of criticism from community groups and legal scholars, including the UC Irvine School of Law’s Immigrant Rights Clinic, which issued a report more than a year and a half ago on the ICE referral practice.
After examining the agency’s past and current procedures, the law school concluded that the ICE notifications violated California’s existing juvenile confidentiality law, and also triggered a series of actions that violate due process and other constitutional rights of juveniles referred to ICE.
Last week also offered some good news to a youth who has lived more than three years with the threat of deportation hanging over him.
In 2012, county probation officers referred the Tustin boy, who was then 14-years-old to ICE after he landed in juvenile hall for bringing a pocketknife to school. ICE agents took the boy into custody three years ago and he was subsequently placed in deportation proceedings.
Voice of OC followed his journey and featured him in a series published last month that examined the ramifications of these ICE referrals. Since he is a minor in the juvenile justice system, Voice of OC used the pseudonym of Alex for the minor, and Marisa for his mother, to protect their privacy.
Last week, shortly after the article's publication, Alex’s attorney notified him that the federal immigration judge from the Executive Office for Immigration Review in Los Angeles had halted his deportation proceedings.
Alex said the decision was “beyond unexpected” and a relief, particularly because he was prepared to go to court many more times before the judge issued a decision.
“I feel good. I feel like I have a little bit more room to breathe now,” he said.
Regarding the governor’s approval of AB 899, Alex praised the new law, but remained skeptical regarding its enforcement. He pointed out that the existing law already prohibits confidential juvenile information from being shared, but youth were nonetheless referred to ICE.
Still, he felt the passage of the law is a step in the right direction.
“It’s too late for me,” he said, “But it will help others.”
For Medina, the new law represents much more than just a step forward in protecting undocumented minors in Orange County and throughout California.
“I think it’s a huge victory also because California is setting an example nationwide. There are different states that don’t have similar laws to California so minors are still vulnerable across the nation,” said Medina.
Now, Medina says, his organization will conduct outreach in the immigrant community to raise awareness about the new law, which takes effect. Jan. 1.
Santa Ana Boys and Men of Color also plans to closely monitor enforcement of the law and hopes to work with the juvenile court to ensure that violators are held accountable.
“Half the battle is passing the law,” said Medina. “And unfortunately the other part of the battle is continuing to monitor the implementation and enforcement of it. And we definitely will continue monitoring next year.”
Yvette Cabrera is a long-time Orange County journalist and Voice of OC contributing writer. You can reach her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.