A new law aimed at deporting illegal immigrants charged with or convicted of crimes is set to go into effect on Tuesday, over the objections of civil rights groups and Gov. Deval Patrick.
The so-called Secure Communities act gives the federal government the right to check the immigration status of locally arrested individuals to determine if they are in the country illegally. If they are, they face deportation.
The law, which went into effect last week in New Hampshire, has been rolled out across the country since 2008 and has been a huge success, according to a spokesman for the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, or ICE.
"Secure Communities has proven to be the single most valuable tool in allowing the agency to eliminate the ad hoc approach of the past and focus on criminal aliens and repeat immigration law violators," said Ross Feinstein in a statement emailed to The Eagle-Tribune. "In fiscal year 2011, for the first time ever, 55 percent of all of ICE's removals were convicted criminals and over 90 percent of all removals clearly fell into one of ICE's categories for priority enforcement."
Local law enforcement officials welcomed the new law, saying it doesn't create any more work for police but it does make the streets safer.
"I've been a big supporter of it," said Methuen police Chief Joseph Solomon. "It's been a long time coming."
He said the new law amounts to "flipping an electronic switch to let the FBI talk to ICE."
For years, every time someone is arrested and fingerprinted by local police, their prints have been sent to a State Police databank as well as to the FBI. The only difference now, said Solomon, is that those prints will also be sent to ICE.
"It won't change what we do here and it doesn't require any extra work on our part," he said, unlike many federal or state mandates that end up costing time and money on the part of local agencies. Solomon said he recently met with officials from ICE and was briefed on the program.
He said he doesn't understand criticism of it by civil rights groups or the governor that it could lead to racial profiling or will erode trust between law enforcement and immigrant communities.
"If I was just going to randomly fingerprint people on the street, yes, that could be racial profiling," he said. "But if you're already under arrest for committing a crime, I'm still going to fingerprint you. I'm a little lost on the profiling thing."
He said lack of trust among some immigrant groups is a problem that can be solved by education.
"The propaganda has been put out there that we are going to fingerprint you if you report a crime," he said. "People are afraid of a law enforcement tool because they don't understand it. We have to educate people that we are not going to randomly fingerprint them. If you are here illegally, and you are the victim of a crime, we're not going to check your residency."
Police, he said, are more concerned about solving crimes than rounding up illegal immigrants.
But critics of the law, who held a press conference Thursday at the Boston Statehouse, say that while most police are respectful of peoples' rights, all it takes is one officer with a vendetta against an ethnic group or acting out of some kind of racist attitude to abuse the system and go after illegals.
"This just increases the dragnet in this country against people who came here, like our great-grandparents, to get ahead and who made this country great," said Franklin Soults, communications director for MIRA, the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, which sponsored the press conference.
He said immigrants who spoke at Thursday's press conference told horror stories of being questioned about their immigration status by police officers without cause.
"One person even got asked by a police officer if they were an illegal immigrant while standing in line at a convenience store," Soults said, adding that the program has resulted in the deportation of both criminals and non-criminals in Boston, where the law was implemented some time ago.
"Forty-nine percent of the people deported from Boston under ICE had no criminal record," he said. "This just increases fear in our communities."
Soults agreed with Solomon that education was needed — both for crime victims and for police departments that may be involved in racial profiling.
He added that while it appears the law is going to be imposed in Massachusetts, there is still the opportunity for some jurisdictions to refuse to detain illegal immigrants at the request of ICE.
"In California, legal actions have been taken and some communities won't honor the detainers," he said. "They won't hold people after ICE makes the request."
The way the law works is that once a person has been identified as being an illegal immigrant by ICE, the agency sends the local department a detainer form, essentially asking that department to hold the person until a hearing can be held on the person's residency status.
If the person is deemed to be an illegal immigrant, then a number of things can happen, according to Maurice Pratt, spokesman for Essex County Sheriff Frank Cousins.
"If a person goes to trial and is found not guilty, they'd take him," Pratt said. "Or if he's paroled, bailed out or his sentence expires."
In most cases, however, ICE won't issue a detainer until a person goes through the local judicial system.
He said Cousins has been a strong proponent of the law, and even signed on to several letters to lawmakers and government officials last fall supporting the measure.
"We've been doing this for years," said Pratt. "We'd like to think we're ahead of the curve on this."
Other sheriffs across the state, particularly Thomas Hodgson of Bristol County, have led the effort to bring the law to Massachusetts despite objections from Gov. Patrick.
"We have had several people killed by illegal aliens and many victimized by criminal illegal aliens," Hodgson said in a letter to federal lawmakers last October. "Failing to implement (Secure Communities) as expeditiously as possible further exposes those we are sworn to protect to dangers that otherwise would be nonexistent."
Patrick, however, has long said that the law would lead to racial profiling. By Thursday, however, he had backed off some of his earlier comments and appeared ready to support the new law.
"I think it's very important here that people not see this as a license to profile," he said. "It is about public safety and there's a right way and a wrong way to do it, and I will say the federal government seems to have responded to some of the concerns that we in Massachusetts and in other states have expressed," Patrick told reporters at the Statehouse.
Immigrant groups called on Patrick Thursday to take executive action to resist the federal program but Patrick appeared resigned to its implementation.
"I am going to uphold the law," Patrick said Thursday.
Material from Statehouse News Service was used in this report.
• • •
Follow Bill Kirk on Twitter under the screen name bkirktrib. To comment on stories and see what others are saying, log on to eagletribune.com.