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US overrules Patrick on immigration

Says state must join program; effort deports criminal offenders

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By Maria Sacchetti and Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / June 7, 2011

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The US government will force the state of Massachusetts to join a controversial federal program to detect and deport illegal immigrants, despite Governor Deval Patrick’s refusal to endorse it, a senior Homeland Security official said yesterday.

Patrick’s rejection of the Secure Communities program yesterday can do little, if anything, to impede the program from expanding statewide by 2013, said the official, who has direct knowledge of the program but spoke on the condition of anonymity because he did not have clearance to speak for the agency. The data-sharing systems the program relies upon are already in place, the official said, and the governor has no legal standing to block their use.

“It might delay the statewide implementation a little bit, but I think our position is we will continue to expand it when we are ready, where we are ready,’’ the official said in a telephone interview from Washington, D.C.

Launched in 2008, the Secure Communities program runs the names and fingerprints of everyone arrested through federal immigration and criminal databases. The purpose is to ensure that offenders who are in this country illegally, especially violent criminals, are detained and deported. But the program has been highly controversial among immigrant advocates, who argue that it could be used against those whose offenses are minor, for example, being caught driving without a license.

Patrick, whose administration had pledged in December to sign the Secure Communities agreement this year, has said he agrees with the program’s goal of weeding out violent criminals but said yesterday that he was concerned that it is ensnaring others.

In rejecting it, Patrick followed the states of New York and Illinois. But his decision marks a rare difference with President Obama, his friend and political ally, and sets up a showdown with the federal government, as well as with Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston and Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis, who defended the Secure Communities program yesterday.

The program, now being used in 42 states, was adopted in Boston in 2006, when the federal government launched it as a pilot program. The city is the only Massachusetts jurisdiction in the program.

In a June 3 letter to US Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Patrick’s public safety secretary, Mary E. Heffernan, said that more than half of those deported under Boston’s program were not criminals. About 1 in 4 of those deported had been convicted of a serious crime.

“The governor and I are dubious of the Commonwealth taking on the federal role of immigration enforcement,’’ she wrote to ICE, the Homeland Security agency that runs the program. “We are even more skeptical of the impact that Secure Communities could have on the residents of the Commonwealth.’’

Yesterday, Patrick added that the program could ultimately discourage other immigrants from reporting crimes.

“We will give up more than we get,’’ Patrick said, later adding, “We run a serious risk of ethnic profiling and frankly fracturing incredibly important relationships in communities that are important for law enforcement.’’

However, Davis said yesterday that his statistics differ sharply from the state’s.

Davis said Boston police have checked 44,000 sets of fingerprints since 2008, and, of these, about 775 people have been taken for deportation. He said the program is nabbing serious criminals, including murderers and rapists.

“I have not been able to find anyone who is completely innocent who has been deported as a result of this program,’’ Davis said. “These are not people who are stopped for motor vehicle violations; these are not people who we encounter on the street day in and day out. These are people who get arrested.’’

However, Davis said yesterday that the mayor directed him to study Boston’s cases and determine whether the program was truly deporting those whose offenses are minor, as critics contend. “If we find that there are examples of people who have been unfairly deported in our estimation, then we would withdraw from the program,’’ Davis said.

Menino declined to comment on Patrick’s decision. “He’s got to make his own decisions,’’ Menino said.

Advocates for immigrants — including several Democratic allies in the Legislature, such as state Representative Marcos Devers of Lawrence and Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz of Boston — praised Patrick’s decision, saying it would encourage immigrants to report crime to the police, particularly domestic violence.

“If we really want to address the violence we’re seeing in our neighborhoods, we need stronger police-community partnerships, not weaker ones,’’ said Chang-Diaz. “From the perspective of addressing domestic abuse and youth violence, the real threats I see in my community, this decision is a good one for public safety.’’

Centro Presente, a Somerville-based statewide advocacy group that was among the first to protest the program, urged Boston to drop out, as well. “We hope that Mayor Menino will reconsider Boston’s participation in this program in light of its poor performance as reflected in ICE’s own statistics,’’ said executive director Patricia Montes.

Others say the Secure Communities program’s main goal is to protect people, including immigrants themselves, from dangerous criminals.

Jessica Vaughan — director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington based group that favors stricter controls on immigration — said Secure Communities might have saved a Brockton woman and her 2-year-old son, who were savagely beaten to death in February, allegedly by an illegal immigrant who used aliases and had been arrested before for other offenses.

“These are precisely the types of offenders who would be targeted by ICE if they knew about their arrest,’’ said Vaughan.

Republicans and at least one Democrat accused Patrick of playing politics with public safety, and stalling on his decision until after last year’s election. “It’s unfortunate that the governor is weakening public safety in the Commonwealth by retreating from expressed commitments,’’ Bruce Tarr, the Senate Republican leader, said in a statement.

Senator Richard T. Moore, an Uxbridge Democrat, said he was “severely disappointed’’ in Patrick’s decision. “This is a grave mistake that unfortunately appears to pit politics ahead of the public safety of our residents,’’ he said in a statement.

ICE did not comment on the governor’s decision, but said it is analyzing the effectiveness of its enforcement programs, including Secure Communities, and will share the results with the state, said spokesman Chuck Jackson.

John R. Ellement of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Maria Sacchetti can be reached at msacchetti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@mariasacchetti. Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com.