The struggle over how to enforce immigration laws in Massachusetts is heating up. A group of local sheriffs is trying to deputize their jail officials to check the immigration status of people in their lockups. This comes after a number of high-profile incidents involving immigrants in the state.
In 2013, if you're arrested and booked in the state of Massachusetts your fingerprints will be forwarded on to U.S. immigration officials. If you're here illegally, this could get you deported.
Cracking Down On Illegal Immigration
For a handful of sheriffs in Massachusetts, 2013 can't come fast enough. They want this program, called Secure Communities, now. But the federal immigration department won't set up individual localities. They say they'll activate the whole state when they're ready.
So the sheriffs are seeking another solution, something called 287(g). Under this longstanding national program, the sheriffs would send their deputies to be trained as immigration agents. The deputies could then check the immigration status of anyone booked into their jails, and detain people who are here illegally, until the feds can deport them.
"There are so many people being killed by these illegal aliens and crimes that are being committed," said Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson, "that we decided we're going forward and we're going to get the resources that we need."
Illegal Immigrants And Crime
Hodgson and others have mobilized in part because of recent crimes allegedly involving immigrants. Especially the case of Nicolas Guaman, an Ecuadorian roofer here illegally, who was charged with vehicular homicide and driving drunk last month in Milford.
But just how many immigrants have been involved in such crimes or whether there's any trend of immigrants committing crimes, Hodgson couldn't say.
Government agencies don't keep crime statistics based on immigration status.
But immigrant advocates say most immigrants are here to work, not commit crimes.
"It's terrible because they are using these cases to generalize, to criminalize the entire population of undocumented community in Massachusetts. And that is not fair," said Patricia Montes, the executive director of Centro Presente, a Latin-American immigrant organization.
Montes says immigrants who have been convicted of serious crimes should be deported. But she opposes plans to automatically share local arrest information with federal immigration officials. She says Secure Communities has cast too wide a net and deported many non-criminals.
Flaws, Controversy Around Secure Communities Program
According to Immigration and Customs Enforcement statistics in Boston, the only place in the state where the program operates, more than half of the people deported were not convicted of any crime. That's one reason the City of Boston has requested to get out of the program.
The statistics are similar across the country, and that led a Department of Homeland Security advisory council this month to say the trend is "undercutting the credibility" of Secure Communities. This comment was part of a damning report that has made some question the future of the program.
However, some supporters see no problems with it.
"They're here illegally," said Sen. Scott Brown.
Brown said Secure Communities targets law-breakers.
"You're not swept up. You have to perpetrate a crime in order to be part of (it) and put into the system and even tested. Now we have the opportunity to get federal help and we need to take advantage of it," Brown said.
Brown wrote to Homeland Security Wednesday urging Secretary Janet Napolitano to start the program earlier than planned in Massachusetts. Brown blames Gov. Deval Patrick for not requesting Secure Communities. He said if Patrick had shown interest in the program, Massachusetts would move to "the top of the list."
Patrick dismissed the calls for him to implement Secure Communities.
"It's very clear to me what they are about. This is about grandstanding and headlines, that they are running for re-election. And that's terrific," Patrick said.
Homeland Security officials say it doesn't matter if Patrick or the state want the program. Assuming Secure Communities continues, the feds will activate it when they have the necessary technology and staff in place.
And as for the Massachusetts sheriffs who want their own ability to act as immigration agents through 287(g), they will consider that request. But that scheme has fallen out of favor as the Homeland Security puts all its attention on getting Secure Communities up and running nationwide by 2013.
This program aired on September 29, 2011.