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State joins US push on illegal immigrants

Patrick’s about-face lets troopers collect data

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By Maria Sacchetti
Globe Staff / December 18, 2010

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Massachusetts State Police will join a controversial federal program early next year to help the US government detect and deport illegal immigrants arrested for crimes, a sharp departure from Governor Deval Patrick’s 2007 decision barring troopers from enforcing immigration laws.

State officials said they decided to join Boston and scores of other communities in the federal program because its main focus is on detaining and deporting murderers, rapists, and other high-level criminals and because Patrick has supported using immigration laws to help deal with such offenders. They also said the Obama administration forced their decision because the program, known as Secure Communities, will become mandatory nationwide by 2013.

“It has always been the governor’s policy that serious criminals who were in the country illegally ought to be deported,’’ said John Grossman, an undersecretary at the state’s Executive Office of Public Safety. The US government “is rolling this out with or without us,’’ Grossman said. “It’s important that we participate and have a say . . . The alternative is to let it happen to us.’’

Patrick, who is widely viewed as supporting the concerns of immigrants, regardless of their legal status, faced heated criticism during his reelection campaign that he was stalling the Secure Communities program and putting communities at risk. US Immigration and Customs Enforcement formally launched the program in 2008 with a goal of sharing information with state and local law enforcement via computer databases to detect illegal immigrants.

Instead of having State Police actively search for illegal immigrants, the computer will automatically check the fingerprints of all who are arrested against federal immigration databases, in addition to the state and FBI criminal databases that are checked now. Then federal immigration officials decide whether to detain immigrants based on factors such as their criminal records and flight risk.

Ross Feinstein, spokesman for ICE, said that criminals are the agency’s top priority, but that anyone under arrest who is here illegally could be subject to deportation.

“ICE’s focus on those priorities does not amount to an amnesty for other aliens unlawfully present in the United States,’’ he said in a statement. “ICE continues to enforce the immigration law and exercises discretion as appropriate throughout the process.’’

He declined to comment on the state’s decision yesterday, but the issue quickly ignited a debate statewide. Advocates for immigrants said federal statistics show many low-level offenders, such as those caught driving without a license, are being swept up in Boston’s program and nationwide. They also fear the program will deter immigrants from reporting crime.

Others praised the system as a quick way to identify criminals and others here illegally. Backers include state Attorney General Martha Coakley.

It was unclear yesterday when Secure Communities would go online with the State Police and the rest of the state. The expanding program is now in 34 states.

The decision marks a shift for the Patrick administration, which has supported driver’s licenses and in-state college tuition for illegal immigrants. In 2007, in one of his first acts as governor, Patrick overturned Governor Mitt Romney’s pact to train 30 state troopers to detect and arrest suspected illegal immigrants.

At the time, Patrick complained that Romney’s plan would distract troopers from their main duties fighting violence, drugs, and gun trafficking. Instead, Patrick ordered state prisons to screen convicted criminals for immigration violations and report them for deportation.

The Secure Communities system appears to address Patrick’s complaint about Romney’s plan. Under the program, State Police would not do anything differently than they do now. The difference is that fingerprints of everyone they arrest will be checked against ICE databases, as well as databases such as the FBI.

But critics said yesterday that the Secure Communities program would have a far greater reach than Romney’s original plan. They say the program is already netting minor offenders, even though the US government’s stated priority is to crack down on hard-core criminals.

Federal records show that 230 immigrants were deported from October 2008 through July under Boston’s program, which began as a pilot in 2006. Of those, more than half, 125, were classified as “noncriminals.’’

“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, an 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.’’

The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts also criticized the program yesterday and said it would try to help communities that wish to opt out of it. It said the program could lead to racial profiling and wrongful arrests.

Others say Secure Communities efficiently screens people under arrest and could prevent future crime, such as the 2008 rape of a Rhode Island woman by an immigrant with a criminal history. That state’s incoming attorney general has said he would try to bring Secure Communities there.

“It’s very good news for the cities and towns of Massachusetts,’’ said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors tougher controls on immigration. “Now the local police departments and sheriffs will have access to this tool that has worked so well in so many parts of the country.’’

Everett Police Chief Steven A. Mazzie, whose city has experienced a rapid rise in its immigrant population, said he would join the program. “Their priority is going to be on what they told us are the serious criminals,’’ he said. “I don’t really have a problem with trying to get criminals off the streets.’’

Others say they feel caught in the middle. Chelsea Police Chief Brian Kyes said he wants to catch criminals, but he worried that immigrants would be afraid to report offenders to police, out of fear of being deported themselves. In Chelsea, 38 percent of the population is immigrants, the highest in the state.

“All people will know is that John was arrested by Chelsea police and now John is being subject to deportation proceedings,’’ he said. “They’ll say, ‘We can’t trust the Chelsea police any longer.’ ’’