Dressed in a pristine dark blue uniform, Ernesto Moron raised his right hand and swore to defend the constitution of a state he wasn’t born in but that he has called home for more than two decades.
That December afternoon, the 26-year-old Mexican-born man became the first officer hired by the UC Davis Police Department under a 1-year-old California law that repealed the U.S. citizenship requirement to become a peace officer in the state.
“I was always told to be afraid of police officers because I would get deported,” Moron recently told CalMatters. “Now I want to help this community and help other people that are in my same shoes.”
Before the law took effect, California, like most states, had required its peace officers to be U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents who have applied for citizenship.
The state law, SB 960, makes applicants with federal work authorization eligible to become officers. Supporters said the new law would make an effective recruiting tool at a time of persistent patrol officer shortages and declining staff levels. They said if immigrants were encouraged to apply, law enforcement agencies could gain more diverse, multilingual officers.
Sen. Nancy Skinner, the Democrat from Oakland who sponsored the law, called the citizenship rule archaic in a statement and said the new law could “improve the current relationship between law enforcement and communities of color by increasing the visibility and representation of people from the neighborhood.”
But an informal CalMatters poll of the largest local and state police departments in California suggests many have been slow to hire the newly eligible immigrants. Moron is one of about a dozen California law officers who got jobs through the law, which went into effect Jan. 1, 2023.
California cities are struggling to hire enough officers, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Public Policy Institute of California this month reported the number of patrol officers per 100,000 people is at its lowest point since at least 1991. Though the steepest declines occurred during the Great Recession from 2007 and 2009, staffing levels still have not recovered.
In 2022 alone, the state commission that certifies newly trained officers issued 2,424 basic certifications, down 53% from 2020 when it awarded 4,530 certifications.
UC Davis Police Chief Joe Farrow swore Moron in as a law enforcement officer, after months of advocating for him and others like him.
Farrow, before joining the university police in 2017, had served as commissioner of the California Highway Patrol for 10 years. Soon after starting at UC Davis, he spoke with students there about potential careers in law enforcement and realized many couldn’t be hired as officers because they were undocumented immigrants.
Most were beneficiaries of a federal program known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which since 2012 has protected from deportation more than half a million undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.
Farrow saw in Moron a hope for a future where police agencies recruit new officers from among immigrant communities, he said.
“They are part of our community,” Farrow said. “They go to school here, they learn here, they teach here, so having undocumented police officers was the next step into completing the idea of representing our community.”
Like Moron, Farrow was born overseas. The former commissioner of the largest state police agency in the country spent his first decade of life in Japan, before settling with his family in Pacific Grove, a coastal city in Monterey County.
Years later, in 2020, Farrow met Moron at UC Davis, where Moron was working as a security manager.
About half of UC Davis’ 48 sworn officers are former UC students, Farrow said, but it’s not uncommon for other employees to later be sworn in as officers, especially in small police forces.
As a DACA recipient, Moron is legally authorized to work in the U.S. However, he was ineligible to become a police officer in California.
“Ernesto has lived here over 20 years, so the question was: why would we prevent him from doing what he wants to do?” Farrow said.
Though the Golden State is home to the country’s largest immigrant population, for years it barred them from many careers because professional licenses required Social Security numbers.
Then new laws took effect in 2014 allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain professional licenses. Today they can be lawyers, doctors, nurses and other licensed professionals.
It took nearly a decade longer for California to join states like Colorado and Illinois, which allow DACA beneficiaries to put on a badge.
“I found it highly ironic that you can be a U.S. military police officer without being a U.S. citizen. So you can serve in our armed forces and, in effect, be the law enforcement for our armed forces,” Skinner said. “And yet, California had a rule that you could not be a police officer.”
Though most state legislators ultimately approved the bill, there was early opposition. At an Assembly Public Safety hearing in June 2022, Skinner introduced Farrow and Moron to testify for the bill.
“During my senior year I attended the UC Davis Police Academy and I distinguished myself in several disciplines,” Moron said as he sat next to Farrow. “Typically top candidates from the academy are evaluated for sworn police positions, and I believe UC Davis (police department) had every intention to hire me, but current law prohibits it.
“I passed the same police background check that sworn officers must pass to get the position I am today. This bill will allow me and countless others the opportunity to fulfill my dream of serving the communities where I was raised.”
Skinner stressed at the hearing that the bill would not allow undocumented immigrants who lack work authorization to be hired as peace officers.
Nevertheless, several lawmakers opposed the bill, including Assemblymember Tom Lackey, a Republican from Palmdale and a former California Highway Patrol background investigator.
“California law enforcement agencies have limited capabilities to determine the criminal background of foreign nationals, which the federal government does prior to granting citizenship that enables service as a peace officer in most agencies,” Lackey told CalMatters in a statement.
“Additionally, someone who is not legally in the U.S. cannot legally possess a firearm, which is an essential tool for officers,” he said.
A Firearms Holdup?
The Sacramento Police Department, which had more than 60 sworn officer positions to fill as of December 2023, said it hasn’t hired anyone under the new law, in part because of firearm safety concerns.
“There have been background issues and additional legal hoops that prevented them from being hired as peace officers. For example, there is a requirement to be a citizen to possess a firearm,” the Sacramento Police Department said in a statement.
But other law enforcement agencies disagree, saying DACA candidates are legally allowed to carry weapons for their job.
The Los Angeles Police Department recently announced a policy memorializing the right of DACA recipients to be employed as officers. It has hired 10 DACA recipients as officers in a force of 8,960 sworn officers. The department was funded for 9,300 positions, officials said.
“Los Angeles Police Department officers who are in the U.S. pursuant to DACA have the authority to possess a firearm for use in the performance of their official duties or other law enforcement purposes,” said Lizabeth Rhodes, senior legal and policy adviser to the chief of police, during a December Los Angeles Police Commission meeting.
Rhodes added that while the federal Gun Control Act of 1968 established that “illegal aliens” were forbidden to possess firearms, the law contained exceptions, including cases where the firearm or ammunition is issued by a state or department.
Capt. Robin Petillo, in LAPD’s recruitment and employment division, confirmed that the newly minted officers who are DACA recipients will possess department-issued firearms on and off duty.
One of law enforcement’s main lobbying entities has cast doubt on the new law’s prospects.
“While some departments have adjusted their policies to allow DACA recipients to possess their department-issued firearms while off duty, this is not the case with most departments and therefore poses a serious safety issue for noncitizen officers,” said Brian Marvel, president of the Peace Officers Research Association of California, representing organizations involving 80,000 public safety workers.
Some of the state’s largest law enforcement agencies — San Francisco, Oakland, Bakersfield, Stockton, Riverside and Long Beach — said they have hired no officers under the new law, despite having dozens of unfilled positions.
Riverside Police is “in the process of developing a policy addressing some of the concerns” raised in opposition to SB 960, said Officer Ryan Railsback. As of Jan. 4, the department had more than 60 sworn officer positions to fill.
San Jose and San Diego police departments did not respond to CalMatters’ questions about DACA recipients, and the San Francisco police department, which officially endorsed SB 960 shortly after it went into effect, recently did not provide numbers of sworn officers and officer positions.
The California Highway Patrol said it has not hired DACA recipients. As of Dec. 24, the state agency had 5,444 sworn officers and was authorized for 6,406 positions.
Competency and Character
Farrow, at UC Davis, said he was not surprised that there is opposition from critics who raised concerns about vetting noncitizens.
“People associate it with what they see on TV,” Farrow said. “They associate this crowded border and people climbing over the wall to get into this country and the next day we hire them as a police officer. We would never do that.
“You don’t have to show proof of citizenship — that’s it. If you have a legal work permit by the federal government, then you’re subject to a complete background check,” he said, “the same as I went through to become a police officer.”
In order to receive DACA status, petitioners must have been under the age of 31 as of June 2012 and have arrived in the U.S. before reaching their 16th birthday. They also must lack any serious criminal records.
Though DACA recipients receive work authorization, they don’t have a path to permanent legal status or citizenship. Moron and hundreds of thousands of other DACA enrollees must renew their DACA status every two years.
But the program is enmeshed in a years-long legal battle over its future.
Last year, at the request of Republican led-states, a federal judge in Texas declared the DACA immigration program unlawful. While the judge didn’t order the termination of DACA, the program cannot receive new applicants.
And if a DACA recipient loses their protected status, they’d likely lose eligibility to work as a police officer, said Marc Reina, an LAPD deputy chief, at a December police commission meeting.
Farrow said he decided to hire and get Moron trained as an officer because of his character and competency.
“Competency is your training, your education, your background —military, non-military — your school,” Farrow said. “The character is who you are — are you honest, are you giving? I can train the competency but can’t train the character.”
Moron’s long-sought dream finally materialized when Farrow handed him a badge at that small swearing-in ceremony at the UC Davis police department. The kid who was told to be afraid of police because he could get deported gained the authority to protect the communities that took him in as a young immigrant.
“I’ve been here for 21 years and I always wanted to help my community,” Moron said. “I think everyone should have a shot at something they want to do. I’ve been waiting for this for a while.”
About the Author
Justo Robles was born and raised in Lima, Peru. Since graduating from Rutgers University, he’s worked as a newsroom producer at Spanish-language television networks including Telemundo and Univision, earning Emmy awards in New York and California. As a bilingual reporter, he’s written from South America, Central America and Mexico. His work has been published in The Guardian, NBC News, CBS News, KQED, CNN, El Tímpano and Revista El Malpensante.
CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom committed to explaining California policy and politics.