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California Assembly Votes to Limit Immigration Checks After Arrests

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Democrats in California's Assembly joined other states Thursday in questioning the federal system that uses fingerprints to check the immigration status of people picked up by police. 

The Assembly approved AB1081 on a 43-22 party line vote after heated debate over public safety and whether the measure would help or hurt it. 

The bill would add new restrictions and let counties opt out of the state agreement on use of the Secure Communities automatic fingerprint program to screen for citizenship and criminal background. 

The legislation now moves to the state Senate. 

Other states have taken similar steps amid complaints the program is supposed to help deport convicted felons but has also swept up crime victims, witnesses and people who were arrested but never convicted. 

Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, argued that his bill would protect public safety because immigrants would be more willing to report crime if they didn't fear deportation. 

The fingerprint program "has actually harmed public safety and seriously undercut community policing strategies," he said. 

Comparing fingerprints against federal records under the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement program led to the deportation of nearly 36,000 undocumented immigrants from California from October 2008 through February 2011, according to an analysis of the bill by legislative staff. 

However, 27 percent were not criminals, and 41 percent were considered low-level offenders. 

Opponents said the bill would leave criminals free who should be deported. 

"This bill expands the concept of sanctuary cities to sanctuary counties," said Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, R-Twin Peaks, who helped found a Minuteman chapter in Southern California and introduced a bill that echoed major elements of Arizona's controversial immigration enforcement bill. That California bill was shot down this session in committee. 

Donnelly cited a 2008 San Francisco case in which three members of a family were shot to death by a gang member who was an illegal immigrant and had been released from custody as a juvenile. 

The bill "is going to lead to more deaths," he said. 

California was among the earliest states to agree to use the fingerprint program. States that adopted it later included more safeguards to protect crime victims, traffic violators and others suspected of minor offenses. 

Ammiano's bill would require changes to California's agreement to protect juveniles and domestic violence victims; allow county governments to decide whether to participate; add protections against racial profiling; ban use of checkpoints for the purpose of checking fingerprints; and submit only the fingerprints of those convicted of a crime rather than those accused. 

Officials in Los Angeles and San Francisco have raised concerns about the Secure Communities program, with San Francisco about to start limiting the information it shares. 

On Wednesday, sheriffs from Yolo County in California and Kane County in Illinois held a news conference with immigration activists to oppose the program. 

Illinois has decided to stop participating, and Washington state has left participation up to local jurisdictions, Federal officials have argued that states have no say in what information is shared among federal agencies.

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