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For nearly two weeks, WBUR has been reporting on a number of specially trained officers and agents from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency working in Boston with local U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials.
The deployment is part of a nationwide effort by the Trump administration to crack down on so-called sanctuary cities — where local law enforcement are limited in their cooperation with federal immigration officials.
News of the specially-trained federal immigration agents working in Boston quickly spread and visions of armed immigration raids increased.
In a rare sit-down discussion, the acting director of ICE's Boston field office, Todd Lyons, said he wants to put some of those fears to rest.
Many of the reinforcements from the border agency have training in SWAT tactics, but Lyons said Greater Boston should not expect to see those skills on full display.
"There won't be tactical SWAT teams patrolling the streets. These are specifically trained officers that are a force multiplier; high risk vehicle stops, clearing buildings. They're used to dealing in an urban environment," he said.
Lyons, who comes to New England from the ICE field office in Dallas, called these reinforcements necessary in light of Boston's Trust Act and a 2017 Supreme Judicial Court decision, both limiting cooperation between local law enforcement and ICE.
According to Lyons, all of this makes it more difficult for ICE to arrest undocumented immigrants with criminal backgrounds.
"Ever since I've been here as deputy director and now as the acting field office director, that's one thing we focused on is going after the worst of the worst and I think, when you see those egregious crimes, you can see why we do have more specialized trained officers with us to go out there."
Lyons' office has been sharing with the media images and case histories of "immigration fugitives." The agency claims the individuals were released by Massachusetts authorities as a result of sanctuary policies.
There are photos and criminal backgrounds in the press releases. Some of the charges include child rape, domestic violence, and driving under the influence. Notably, most of the criminal histories consist of only charges, not actual convictions.
According to Lyons, ICE defines "criminal alien" as a person in the country without documented immigration status and who has criminal charges or convictions.
"So we're not going out indiscriminately to these neighborhoods, we're going out with a specific target. But if we encounter other people who happen to be here illegally or without the proper documentation, you know, there's a good chance that they might be arrested by us in the meantime," he said.
ICE deportation officers have vast discretion over how they execute arrests. These collateral arrests — people who are not targeted by ICE but are taken into custody — are a main concern for many immigrant community members and advocates.
"In Massachusetts at any given time, we have anywhere between 500 and 700 detained individuals. Over 97% of those have either pending criminal charges or have been criminally convicted," Lyons said.
A closer look at the data suggests most of the detained population he's referring to fall into that category of "pending criminal charges."
As of April 2019, there were 737 people detained in immigration jails in the state. Of those, 423, or nearly 60% of them have no criminal conviction, according to Syracuse University's TRAC Immigration database.
Lyons said over the past three or four years, his agency has been painted in a bad light but he hopes to change that.
"I think by us getting out there and showing the public safety threat that we can work on and what we actually do, and that we're not rounding up everyday people just going about their business, like we're portrayed," he said. "Again, we would much rather have that cooperation and when we get kind of strung up or a lot of agencies don't cooperate with us, that just makes things more and more worse."
The Safe Communities Act, legislation pending before the state, could make Lyons' job even more complicated, further limiting cooperation between local law enforcement and ICE statewide.
This segment aired on February 26, 2020.
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