Gov. Deval Patrick has decided Massachusetts won’t participate in a federal program that checks the immigration status of people who are arrested, saying the state already turns over convicted felons to federal law enforcement officials.
The move drew immediate criticism from supporters of the federal Secure Communities program, including Beacon Hill Republicans who said Patrick is jeopardizing public safety to score political points with Democratic allies.
The decision also appeared to be a reverse for Patrick, who had initially indicated that he believed the state had no choice but to agree to sign onto the program.
Patrick said he has since determined that participation is voluntary.
On Friday, Patrick said he instructed his Public Safety Secretary Mary Beth Heffernan to send a letter to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security stating that Patrick wouldn’t sign any memorandum of understanding for the state to join the program.
Patrick told reporters Monday that the move was “the right decision for the commonwealth.”
“I’m persuaded that here in the commonwealth we will give up more than we get,” he said. “We run a serious risk of ethnic profiling and frankly fracturing incredibly important relationships in communities that are necessary for law enforcement.”
Patrick, who is also a friend and political ally of President Barack Obama, said he believes the administration in Washington isn’t happy with the way the program has rolled out so far.
“I don’t think that the Obama administration is satisfied that the implementation of this program has been very effective,” the Democratic governor said.
It was unclear how Patrick’s decision would change the state’s relationship with federal law enforcement and immigration officials.
Under the Secure Communities program, the FBI automatically shares fingerprints with Homeland Security to check arrestees’ immigration status.
Curtis Wood, an undersecretary for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety, said the state would continue to share all fingerprints of those arrested in Massachusetts with the FBI, who can decide to share them with officials from Homeland Security and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement if they want.
Wood said that at a recent meeting with ICE officials, he was told that they don’t need the state’s cooperation.
“They finally said we don’t need you, we can do it ourselves and we plan to do it ourselves,” Wood said.
Boston is the only city in Massachusetts that currently participates in the program.
In her letter to Homeland Security on Friday, Heffernan cited statistics from ICE that she said show only about one in four of those deported since the start of Boston’s pilot participation in the program were convicted of a serious crime.
More than half of those deported were identified as “non-criminal,” she said.
Chuck Jackson, a spokesman for ICE, said the Secure Communities program “imposes no new or additional requirements on state and local law enforcement” and that fingerprints already are routinely shared with the FBI, which in turn shares them with ICE.
Defenders of the program say it only targets immigrants arrested for committing violent crimes and is not an effort to enforce federal immigration laws.
House Minority Leader Brad Jones, R-North Reading called the program “an important tool to remove people who are here illegally and who on top of that have been arrested for a crime.” He said Patrick is just trying to appeal to his Democratic base by deciding not to participate in the program.
“This decision is as much about politics as it is about anything else, to appease a certain segment of the community for their past support and future consideration,” Jones said.
Immigrant advocacy groups had urged Patrick not to sign onto the program, saying it could discourage immigrants from reporting crimes while encouraging police to practice racial profiling.
“The program would have been completely redundant in Massachusetts,” said Eva Millona, executive director of The Massachusetts Immigrants and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. “Instead, its major effect would have been creating the perception that local police were acting as de facto federal immigration officers.”
Massachusetts isn’t alone in opting out of participation in the program.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has suspended that state’s participation in the program. Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn has also said Illinois won’t participate. And California is weighing legislation that would let individual communities opt out.