Massachusetts is poised to take up a measure that would curb the sharing of information on immigrants between local law enforcement authorities and federal immigration officials.
The proposed law, called "An Act To Restore Community Trust In Massachusetts Law Enforcement," more commonly known as "The Massachusetts Trust Act," takes aim at the controversial federal "Secure Communities" program, and could come to a vote this year.
The underlying concern that led to the bill is apparently overzealous police officers, reporting undocumented immigrants who were arrested on minor charges to federal immigration agents.
According to the Boston Globe, as of December 2012, only 46 percent of the 768 Massachusetts immigrants deported through Secure Communities had criminal records, far below the national average of 76 percent.
That fact contradicts the stated objective of Secure Communities, which is to remove immigrants who pose a serious threat to U.S. society.
“The statistics in Massachusetts are worse than the national average in terms of undocumented immigrants getting deported who haven’t committed a crime,” said Democratic State Sen. James Eldridge, who along with State Rep. Carl Sciortino introduced the Trust Act in January. “For whatever reasons, local and state police in my opinion are too vigorously enforcing the program.”
If it were to pass the measure, Massachusetts would be following in the steps of other states that have pushed legislation directly challenging the use of the federal program meant to partner local law enforcement and immigration authorities.
Similar legislation challenging the use of Secure Communities was passed in Connecticut in May and in California in October. And in 2011, Cook County, Illinois passed an ordinance to stop complying with ICE requests to hold immigrants convicted of misdemeanors and traffic violations.
Massachusetts' bill has been referred to the state Senate Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security. Eldridge's office is pushing for a meeting with the Senate chair of that committee to take action on the bill before a legislative deadline in mid-March, said the senator's office.
The statistics in Massachusetts are worse than the national average in terms of undocumented immigrants getting deported who haven’t committed a crime. For whatever reasons, local and state police in my opinion are too vigorously enforcing the program.
- Massachusetts State Sen. James Eldridge
Secure Communities, which began in 2008 and was piloted in Boston, has been implemented in over 3,000 jurisdictions nationwide. The program essentially calls for local law enforcement to provide the information of arrestees to Immigrations Customs and Enforcement, or ICE, the federal agency within the Department of Homeland Security tasked with arresting and deporting undocumented immigrants.
According to ICE, Secure Communities is meant to target people who pose a public safety threat, but opponents of the program argue that it has targeted undocumented immigrants who have committed misdemeanors, leading to an increase in the number of deportations of non-criminals.
According to ICE figures, since November of 2008, there have been a total of 995 deportations in Massachusetts under the program.
“ICE deceived everybody by saying that [Secure Communities] was a program to detain and deport criminals,” said José Palma, an organizer with Centro Presente, a statewide immigrant advocacy organization that spearheaded the grassroots effort to push for passage of the Massachusetts Trust Act. “That’s why our response was to propose a law to clarify that the police is not obligated to comply with ICE’s requests.”
Under the current system, when people are arrested, their fingerprints are run through an ICE database.
If it is determined that they are in the country illegally, ICE can put a "detainer" on them, a notice to local authorities to hold detainees until ICE agents arrive to take them into custody.
The bill being considered in Massachusetts would provide that people released by the courts not be handed over to immigration authorities. It would also mean that unless someone was deemed a danger to the community or already had a felony conviction, that they would be released on bail.
“That way we’d be showing that our local police are not working as immigration agents,” Palma said.
Immigrant advocates – along with politicians like Eldridge – say that programs like Secure Communities have the potential to lead to racial profiling and have eroded trust between immigrant communities and law enforcement.
Proponents, however, say it is crucial to keeping communities safe and adding another layer of immigration enforcement.
A number of vocal police chiefs have spoken out in support of Secure Communities and its implementation in the state. The Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association has said that the Trust Act makes no sense and that Secure Communities already has enough safeguards in place.
Jessica Vaughan, an analyst with the Washington D.C.-based Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that favors strict immigration laws, said that statistics used by advocacy organizations and the media do not take into account pleas of no contest or continuances, which are not convictions.
"Just because they're lacking a conviction, doesn't mean they shouldn't be deported," she said. "These Trust Act bills take away the discretion of local law enforcement and ICE to decide who is dangerous."
Massachusetts officials such as Gov. Deval Patrick initially expressed opposition to the implementation of Secure Communities – as did a number of other states across the country – but the federal government mandated its use anyway.
The passage of similar legislation in other states – such as California – seems to have given federal officials pause. Even Janet Napolitano, former secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, has endorsed the California Trust Act to rein in the department she once headed.
Immigrant advocates said that legislation like the Massachusetts bill might be the most effective way to challenge the federal government’s policies and could signal a trend.
“[Secure Communities] is a program that has gotten bigger and bigger and it’s time to reel it in,” said Laura Rótolo, with the ACLU of Massachusetts. “I think this is going to be a wave and more and more states will be doing this.”
But Vaughan vehemently disagreed. She warned that the Trust Act would imperil public safety.
"The Trust Acts are really about stopping immigration enforcement, not about public safety," she said. "It gives the Obama administration cover to scale back deportations and gives them cover to say they have blowback from local governments. When enforcement of the law becomes politicized, there can be real problems at the street level if someone falls through the cracks."
Tanya Pérez-Brennan is a freelance writer based in Boston.