Boston Police Commissioner William Gross Tuesday defended his department’s involvement in the 2017 Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrest of a father of five, whose employer contacted authorities while he was recovering from a workplace injury.
The case framed a Boston City Council hearing regarding what lawmakers could possibly do to update the Boston Trust Act, a policy passed in 2014 that prohibits police from detaining people for ICE on the basis of civil immigration law violations or an administrative warrant.
“I just think the [Boston Police Department] was held in a bad light,” Gross told councilors. “We did our job. We did nothing wrong.”
The incident, which Gross said included “unique circumstances,” has brought into question the current relationship between the two law enforcement agencies, particularly from City Councilor Josh Zakim, the Trust Act’s lead sponsor who called for this week’s meeting.
Zakim did not allege that police acted outside the law. But he said it’s time to consider what, if anything, should change in the policy, especially as the Trump administration shepherds in tougher federal immigration law enforcement policies.
“I want to make sure this body, this city, is doing everything we can to comply with the spirit of the original Trust Act and examine ways we can make it stronger because things have changed over the last five years,” Zakim said.
In May 2017, Jose Martin Paz Flores, an undocumented immigrant from Honduras, was arrested by ICE officers after meeting with his employer, Tara Construction, at the company’s offices.
Paz, as first reported by WBUR, had been out of work two months after he fell from a work ladder and fractured his leg. The company, at the time, reportedly did not have workers’ compensation insurance.
In a complaint filed by the U.S. Department of Labor last month, the federal government alleged the company and its CEO, Pedro Pirez, retaliated against Paz by contacting a police detective to investigate his identity after seeing he used multiple names when he reported the injury.
His information was passed on to Boston police Sgt. Det. Gregory Gallagher, who relayed the report to ICE and confirmed Paz would be at the Tara Construction offices on May 10 — the day Pirez requested Paz to come pick up a check to help with his expenses.
Paz was arrested by ICE officers soon after leaving the office. His 2-year-old son was by his side.
“Since that moment, my life has been difficult in every sense,” Paz, through an interpreter, said Wednesday.
Police representatives corroborated the sequence of events to councilors, but asserted that the department acted within the Trust Act and reiterated its commitment to following the law closely.
“Boston police do not enforce federal immigration laws,” Gross said. “We enforce state laws.”
Gallagher said investigators determined that the number assigned to a green card allegedly bearing Paz’s name belonged to someone else and that Paz had “an active warrant” for deportation issued by ICE dating back over 15 years.
According to Gross, officials could not further detail charges involving Paz because of CORI restrictions, but said repeatedly that authorities will arrest anyone, regardless of immigration status or other factors, if they commit a violent crime.
He pointed to over 90 arrests since 2016 involving the MS-13 and 18th Street gangs.
“The victims were people in the community. It didn’t matter what their immigration status was,” he said. “What mattered was that they were victims.”
Gallagher, a 32-year, decorated department member, called press coverage of the Paz case “absolutely disgusting.”
“For the record, I don’t think the Boston police or my brothers and sisters in law enforcement across this Commonwealth should be the scapegoats because of what’s happening in Washington, D.C.,” Gross added.
Asked by reporters to point to any media report citing misinformation, Gross said he had not read all the articles, adding though that the story “was definitely framed in a certain way.”
“When people read it and they’re out there … they take media as gospel and then there’s different interpretations,” he said.
Audrey Richardson, an attorney representing Paz as a witness in the pending Department of Labor case against Tara Construction, told councilors there was a deportation order from 2002 for Paz, but that there has not been a criminal warrant for his arrest at any point.
Aside from a minor motor vehicle infraction in Florida in 2006, Paz has no other convictions and no criminal charges that have not been dismissed or dropped, she said.
Paz’s immigration case is ongoing, although he is authorized to work, according to Richardson.
“I’m really disappointed not to have heard some acknowledgement [from authorities] that there could have been any sort of mistake or error here,” she said.
Advocates said immigrants, often taking on difficult work, are vulnerable to retaliation from their employers.
Laura Rotolo, staff counsel for the ACLU of Massachusetts, advised officials to audit all departments to see what information they share with ICE and to make certain that city policies are subject to regular training.
Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins expressed strong support for the Trust Act, calling it “a necessary and valuable ordinance” that allows for violent crimes to be reported.
“The fear of arrest, detention, and deportation for civil immigration matters has a significant chilling affect on our ability to do justice in the courts of Suffolk County,” she said.
According to Councilor Lydia Edwards, some potential changes to the act could be ways to make sure authorities aren’t being abused by employers.
Edwards told Gross and Gallagher she thinks Tara Construction did just that “to make sure [Paz] went away” when the company didn’t have workers’ compensation to offer.
“He called the law enforcement agency, which to me, you have a lot better things to do, crimes to investigate, than to decide Joe Blow is the proper person to give this workers’ compensation check,” she said. “I feel he used you. I feel he used the Boston Police Department.”
Both Zakim and Gross indicated that they want to keep the discussion going.
“If anything came out of this, it’s that we definitely need to be working together,” Gross told reporters.
Zakim has filed a request through the council for documentation on what information police shared with ICE for Paz’s arrest and with the agency in general.
“This hearing isn’t about finding fault with the Boston Police Department,” he said. “It’s about making sure the City of Boston is not complicit in the inhumane, un-American, xenophobic actions of the Trump administration.”