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“Show me your papers” comes to Massachusetts

Posted by Carol Rose, On Liberty  May 9, 2012 06:33 PM

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ACLU of Massachusetts Legal Director Matthew R. Segal wrote this guest blog.

Starting on May 15, the federal government will effectively force Massachusetts--that’s right, force--to participate in “Secure Communities,” an immigration dragnet that risks pushing Massachusetts toward an Arizona-style “show me your papers” regime.

This is bad news for all Massachusetts residents. S-Comm promotes racial profiling, jeopardizes public safety, and inhibits economic growth. Although the federal government seems intent on implementing this flawed program anyway, Massachusetts officials should try to limit the havoc that it wreaks.

Under S-Comm, everyone arrested and fingerprinted in Massachusetts will have their fingerprints sent for an immigration check by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). This check will occur even if the arrest was for a minor offense and even if the person arrested turns out to be innocent. As a result, S-Comm encourages the police to seek and arrest--rather than merely warn or summons--anyone who just might be in the country illegally.

The S-Comm dragnet promotes the kind of racial profiling all but mandated by Arizona’s infamous “show me your papers” law. That law requires Arizona police officers to check the immigration status of anyone they stop, detain, or arrest, so long as the officer has a mere “reasonable suspicion” that the suspect has violated immigration law. But when police look for immigration offenses, they of course target innocent people who happen to have brown skin or speak with accents.

This racial profiling undermines public safety because it pits police officers against minority communities. Under S-Comm, lawful immigrants and citizens might worry that they and their loved ones will be investigated if they call the police to report a crime or ask for help. They might also fear being arrested just so an officer can check their immigration status. For minority communities, S-Comm turns calling the police into a risky proposition.

To their credit, Massachusetts officials have wrestled with S-Comm’s threat to public safety. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and Police Commissioner Ed Davis have expressed reservations about S-Comm, and Governor Deval Patrick has said he would not sign a memorandum implementing it.

But, rather than respect those concerns, the federal government released a memo concluding that it did not need anyone’s permission to implement S-Comm. Instead, when a Massachusetts police officer submits fingerprints to the FBI for a criminal background check, the FBI will simply pass the fingerprints along to ICE for an immigration status check. This practice will erode valuable trust between local law enforcement and minority communities.

What is more, S-Comm imperils our state’s fragile economic recovery by making our state less hospitable to immigrants. Most immigrants, including those in violation of immigration law, contribute meaningfully to the economy. They are here to work. And, contrary to talk-radio folklore, research shows that crime declines significantly with increases in the proportion of a community that is foreign-born and Hispanic.

So it is hardly surprising that states suffer economically when they drive out immigrants. Arizona’s immigration law has driven out thousands of laborers, consumers, and entrepreneurs. Alabama’s new anti-immigrant law, meanwhile, could cost that state between $2.3 and $10.8 billion per year.

S-Comm now brings similar risks to Massachusetts, and Massachusetts officials should fight them. Although our state’s officials might not be able to scrap S-Comm, they can instruct police officers not to engage in racial profiling, not to arrest people just to run immigration checks, and not to let concerns about illegal immigration color their relations with minority communities.

If our police officers focus on what is important--solving serious crimes and building good relationships with minority communities--we will all benefit.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Carol Rose is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. A lawyer and journalist, Carol has spent her career working for and writing about human rights and civil liberties, both in the United States and abroad. More »

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