New State Law Protects Undocumented Immigrants in Courts

Created: 24 May, 2018
Last update: 20 April, 2022

By Ana Gomez Salcido

Undocumented immigrants can come forward to testify in court without fear of deportation, after California Governor Jerry Brown signed the Senate Bill 785 into law.

Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) and Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher (D-San Diego) authored the bill to protect immigrants from irrelevant disclosures of their immigration status in open court.

“This is about protecting public safety,” said Gonzalez Fletcher. “Our criminal justice system can’t function if witnesses or victims are afraid to testify out of fear of being deported. You should be able to testify against a murderer or rapist without fearing that you or your loved ones will be thrown out of the country as a result.”

SB 785 was approved with bipartisan support by both the State Senate and the State Assembly. As an urgency measure it required two-thirds approval by the Legislature before getting to the governor’s desk.

“Our courthouses should be places of justice, not places where immigrants are threatened with deportation,” said Wiener. “This law makes everyone in our community safer by ensuring that witnesses and victims of crime are not afraid to report crimes, go to court, and hold criminals accountable.”

This law that will go into effect immediately, was supported by several organizations and California leaders including San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan.

“We don’t ask the immigration status of the victims or witnesses we come into contact with and this bill gives victims and witnesses of human trafficking, sexual assault, domestic violence and other criminal cases charged in state court state court another layer of protection and confidence that they can come forward and testify without fear,” said Stephan. “It’s a common sense protection that helps us deliver justice, promote the reporting of crime, and keep our communities safe.”

The legislation was also supported by Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley, San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi, the Californians for Safety and Justice, Immigrant Defenders Law Center, California Partnership to End Domestic Violence, and many more.

SB 785 requires that any discussion or questioning about the immigration status of any witness, victim, or defendant first be deemed by a judge to be relevant and admissible.

This preliminary judicial determination will prevent disclosure of immigration status, which can deter witnesses from coming forward to testify in both criminal and civil cases. To establish admissibility, an attorney must persuade a judge in a private hearing before raising the issue in open court. The judge will then determine whether to allow the issue to be raised.