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Clash Over Secure Communities Brings Immigration Debate To Mass.

CHELSEA, Mass. — Immigrant advocates and Tea Party supporters clashed at a public meeting in Chelsea Thursday night. It was the latest in a series of community meetings held by the state over a plan to share local arrest information with federal immigration authorities.

Massachusetts plans to join a program called Secure Communities by 2013. That’s when the federal government says it wants the entire country to be involved.

Under Secure Communities, local law enforcement agencies and the state would share the fingerprints of everyone they arrest with federal immigration authorities. Those agents would cross check that information against their immigration files.

Federal authorities say the purpose is to deport illegal immigrants convicted of serious crimes. But a review of the deportations in Boston, where the police department instituted the program a few years ago, shows that the program has ensnared many non-criminals or people who committed misdemeanors.

Some, like Tea Party member Carlos Hernandez, said that the program is focused on illegal immigrants, but it helps protect all the citizens of Massachusetts. However, the majority of the people who spoke at the meeting opposed joining the program.

Luis Parone lives in Chelsea and spoke at the meeting through a translator. He said he worked very hard for Gov. Deval Patrick in the last election.

“We didn’t work for him so he could stab us in the back,” Parone said.

Some immigrant activists felt the program has a racial component.

“I’m against this,” said John Schibb, a Massachusetts resident. “I do not feel more secure by this. Let’s be honest… white people don’t tend to get targeted like people of color.”

State public safety officials say they will take everything said at the meetings and compile it into a report to share with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. As Massachusetts secretary of Public Safety, Mary Elizabeth Heffernan held the meetings. She says the state wants to implement the program in a “transparent” way.

“It’s something that we’re not rushing into at all,” Heffernan said. “Our understanding from ICE is that this program will be implemented nationally whether or not states sign on or not.”

Some communities around the country are trying to fight implementing the program, even threatening legal action against the Obama administration. Heffernan said she’s watching these battles, but as of now, Massachusetts plans to comply.

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