Massachusetts State Police and other law enforcement agencies will join a controversial program intended to help federal authorities detect illegal immigrants, a top state public safety official said today.
Public Safety Secretary Mary Beth Heffernan said Massachusetts will sign an agreement to formally join Secure Communities, a federal program that screens all people who are arrested and fingerprinted to determine who is an illegal immigrant. Those here illegally will be reported to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which will decide whether to detain and deport them.
State officials said they agreed to sign up because the Obama administration has demanded that the system expand nationwide by 2013. Boston, which already runs the program, was a pilot for the system. However, state officials complained that the US government has sent them mixed signals on the system.
The move marks a shift for the Patrick administration, which had adamantly opposed having the State Police help enforce immigration law. In one of his first acts as governor, Patrick overturned former governor Mitt Romney's pact with the federal government to deputize some state troopers to enforce immigration law.
“Over the last year we have received conflicting information from ICE relative to the program. It has become clear now that this program is going to be mandatory for all communities in the near future,” Heffernan said today in a statement. “With that knowledge we will sign the (memorandum of understanding) with ICE. We will also work closely with all communities to monitor the implementation and share with federal officials any concerns that are raised.”
Attorney General Martha Coakley said she supported the governor's decision to join the program.
"It is a positive step for public safety to ensure that we are properly identifying people who already have been arrested and sharing that information with federal authorities for appropriate action," she said.
Critics say the program is sweeping up hard-working immigrants who are caught for minor violations, such as driving without a license. Advocates for immigrants are trying to persuade Congress to pass a law that would allow them to apply for legal residency.
"It's very unfortunate that the Obama administration and Governor Patrick support the implementation of this program," said Patricia Montes, executive director of Centro Presente, a statewide immigrant rights organization based in Somerville. "Accepting the mandate of a law that is hostile and criminalizes people is against the principles and values that the United States of America is founded on."
Civil liberties activists also cried foul. "The program in fact makes our communities less safe," said Laura Rótolo, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Massachusetts. Such programs, she said, "encourage racial profiling and undermine community policing efforts because people become afraid to report crime or ask the police for help, out of fear that their information will be sent to ICE."
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