California lawmakers advance bill to protect immigration status in court

California could soon permanently protect a person’s immigration status in court cases where it is not deemed relevant under a bill headed to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk.

Assembly lawmakers voted unanimously Thursday to pass Senate Bill 836, which expands upon provisions in an existing law, SB 785, signed by former Gov. Jerry Brown in 2018. The law prohibited the disclosure of a person’s immigration status in court unless a presiding judge determines it is relevant to the case, meaning an attorney could not question a witness about their immigration status unless a judge deemed it relevant in a private hearing.

The previous law had a sunset date of January 1, 2022. SB 836 removes the sunset date and would take effect immediately if signed by the governor.

Supporters of the bill testified Thursday that the law would safeguard the ability to participate in the justice system for immigrants lacking permanent legal status.

“We cannot have a criminal justice system in which victims are reluctant to report crimes, testify as witnesses or pursue justice in California courts,” Assemblymember Ash Kalra, D-San Jose, told lawmakers Thursday. “When an individual's immigration status is publicly aired in our courthouses, officers of the courts can show the participation of undocumented immigrants by conveying to them that if they participate, they may be deported.

“California courts should uphold justice for everyone, regardless of immigration status.”

The bill received a 69-0 vote in the Assembly on Thursday and had no registered opposition as it made its way through the Legislature.

The bill’s author, Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, had initially introduced SB 785 after circulating reports of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents monitoring and detaining immigrants without permanent legal status at courthouses. The situation caused California Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye to write a letter to former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and former Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly in 2017 expressing concern about immigration agents “stalking undocumented immigrants in our courthouses to make arrests.”

Wiener said Thursday that SB 836 will ensure protections for immigrants in court for years to come.

“In order to truly be a sanctuary state, California has to ensure undocumented people coming forward to testify in court are protected,” he said in a statement. “Exposing people’s immigration status when it’s not relevant to a case is an intimidation tactic, and we won’t stand for it.”

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