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The Boston Police Department should end its participation in a federal program that automatically checks the immigration status of people who are arrested because the practice is discouraging legal and illegal immigrants from cooperating with police, immigrant advocates say.
Patricia Montes, executive director of Centro Presente, a Somerville-based immigrant advocacy group, said some immigrants are refusing to report crimes to Boston police because they fear police may instead check their immigration status.
"I think there are many people (who) are afraid," Montes said. "There are many other cities ... that refused to implement this kind of program and Boston was very proud to implement this kind of program."
But Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis said Tuesday that the city's immigrants, regardless of status, have nothing to worry about if they are not being arrested. He said the checks are not used to enforce federal immigration laws but to identify criminals wanted by federal authorities.
"I understand that people are sensitive to this issue after the Arizona law," said Davis, citing that state's new law that instructs police to question whether people are in the country legally when they are enforcing other laws. "This is in no way close to what's happening in Arizona. We are not enforcing immigration laws. We are simply looking at people who have been involved in criminal activity."
He called the program, which Boston police have been participating in since 2006, a "common sense" approach at keeping communities safe.
Under the federal program known as "Secure Communities," the program allows arrestees' fingerprint information to be checked against FBI criminal history records and biometrics-based immigration records kept by the Department of Homeland Security.
Previously, fingerprints were just checked against the Department of Justice biometric system kept by the FBI.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement wants to have the program in every jail by 2013. ICE said hundreds of jurisdictions in 29 states have implemented the program so far.
From October 2008 through June of this year, nearly 47,000 people identified through Secure Communities were deported, according to government data released in July as part of a lawsuit by immigrant advocacy groups. Of those, 9,831 were labeled as having committed the most serious crimes, while 12,293 were considered non-criminals.
Davis said Boston's participation in the program is not aimed at detaining immigrants for minor criminal offenses like motor vehicle violations.
According to ICE, between November 2008 to July 2010, around 50 level-1 offenders - those convicted of homicide, rape, drug trafficking or other serious crimes - have been removed from the Boston area. Another 50 or so convicted of felonies or minor drug offenses also were removed from Boston, ICE numbers showed.
Montes said her group, along with the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, is planning to offer training next month to immigrants on how to respond to police.
Davis said the department is willing to speak with immigrant advocacy groups about the program.
This program aired on September 21, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.
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