Massachusetts officials mull sanctuary state legislation

The Boston University Statehouse Program
Published: 12/23/2016 11:22:25 PM

BOSTON — For municipalities with large populations of undocumented immigrants, it’s one of the biggest challenges for law enforcement: How do we create a relationship of trust with a community taught not to trust us?

After the presidential race spurred heated national debate on immigration, state Sen. Jamie Eldridge announced last month plans to refile a bill to allow state and local law enforcement to take a light-handed approach to federal immigration laws. The Acton Democrat filed the bill in two previous legislative sessions, but he has hopes it will find more support this year.

“I would argue that this is one of the strongest bills that we could take action on to make immigrants feel more safe in their communities,” Eldridge said in a phone interview.

If passed, the Trust Act would make Massachusetts a “sanctuary state,” with the same protection offered by “sanctuary cities” aimed at protecting their undocumented immigrants, said Peter Missouri, a spokesman for Eldridge.

Eldridge said he wants immigrant communities to know they can go to their local police officers in times of need without fear of deportation.

“Suddenly you have a chilling effect that immigrants will not call police when they see a crime,” he said. “It’s (the Trust Act) designed to restore trust between law enforcement and immigrant communities.”

Not a new issue

Though President-elect Donald Trump’s immigration comments have brought many of these issues to the forefront, the issue of immigrant-police relations is not new to the country’s leaders.

In a Nov. 20, 2014 memo, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson made substantial changes to the Secure Communities program designed to remove “criminal aliens” in state or local custody. Johnson said at the time that the program had been widely misunderstood and criticized.

Writing to a list of officials, including the acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Johnson said the Secure Communities program would be discontinued and replaced by something with more specific guidelines.

“Unless the alien poses a demonstrable risk to national security, enforcement actions through the new program will only be taken against aliens who are convicted of specifically enumerated crimes,” Johnson wrote.

As far as arrests go, the changes in policy have been considerable. One change has been a reduction in the number of “detainer requests” from federal officials asking local law enforcement agencies to hold a person beyond their release date to give them more time to investigate their immigration status.

An August study from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University found that the number of ICE detainer requests decreased from 68,489 in 2014 to 47,253 in 2015 for people with no criminal convictions.

The same period saw a drop in the numbers in each of the top 50 offenses listed in the TRAC report. In total, the number of ICE detainer requests decreased from 159,210 in 2014 to 95,085 in 2015.

There were 13,253 total detainer requests recorded in the first two months of 2016, the only months available.

Despite the drop in the numbers, many undocumented immigrants and their advocates remain concerned about police actions that could put the undocumented at risk of deportation.

Amy Grunder, director of legislative affairs for the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, said it’s vital for undocumented or mixed-status families to know they can go to the police if they witness or are victim to a crime.

In mixed-status families, for example, victims of domestic abuse often hesitate to go to police for fear of deportation. If the victim relies on an abuser to legally live in the United States, reporting the crime could put the victim’s immigration status at risk, Grunder said.

But the victim faces increasing danger if the abuse goes unreported.

“If you’re an immigrant victim, you’re twice as likely in Massachusetts to die in that situation than a native victim,” Grunder said.

What the Trust Act says

Grunder said many voted against the Trust Act in previous legislative cycles because of a misunderstanding over what it prohibits.

She said the law would not restrict local law enforcement from sharing a person’s immigration status with federal officials, especially if the person is a dangerous or repeat offender.

The Trust Act would, however, give local law enforcement the power to withhold other information from federal authorities. The act would also allow local officials to decline requests to hold someone in custody longer than necessary because of immigration status.

“The incoming administration is echoing efforts by some members of Congress to suggest that sanctuary policies are illegal because they don’t apply with federal law,” she said. “I think it’s really important right now for this state … to stand up for its residents and to distinguish itself as a leader in the United States of America in response to the targeting of immigrant communities.”

Grunder applauded many Massachusetts towns and cities for making that stand over the last several years. But she remains concerned that a change in leadership could mean a change in policy within individual departments. The Trust Act would create a legally binding plan that would remain despite a change in leadership.

“The problem with informal and non-legislative solutions is all you need is a different police chief, and the policy will change,” she said.

Against sanctuary policies

But the Federation for American Immigration Reform believes giving local police departments discretion, rather than creating an umbrella policy, ensures they operate successfully. The DC-based nonprofit is against sanctuary policies.

Spokesman Dave Ray said police officers go through intensive discretion training where cases of domestic abuse and immigration issues are discussed.

It’s important for police to win the trust of residents, Ray said, but the primary role of local law enforcement is to protect against danger, not to ensure an undocumented immigrant can stay in the country.

“In the case of domestic violence, the primary role of the police is to protect the victim from further abuse, regardless of what their immigration status is,” Ray said.

William G. Brooks III, president of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, calls the legislation unnecessary, saying he wants to see the changes Trump plans to make to federal immigration policy before choosing a response on the statewide level.

Brooks added that the legislation doesn’t seem to understand the role of local police officers.

“There seems to be a belief out there that the police ask people for their papers,” said Brooks, who is police chief in Norwood. “We don’t have the authority to do that.”

Brooks said the Trust Act would put local law enforcement officials in an uncomfortable position with federal authorities, especially when they are dealing with repeat offenders or violent criminals.

Brooks said that spending time in immigrant communities and finding out how the police can better serve them has been a more productive alternative for gaining trust in Norwood. Every community has different needs, but community-building solutions will ultimately produce better results, he said.

“The better way to gain their trust is to level with them, explain to them that we’re not interested in immigration status,” he said. “As police officers, our mission is to protect people who are here now. I don’t care how they got here. I don’t care what their status is. They’re here now.”


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