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Immigration reform measures stalled in Congress, Mass. Legislature

Nate Homan

President Obama’s vow last week to push through immigration reform by executive order underscores the deep divisions in Congress over the issue.

In Massachusetts, local officials including Boston Mayor Martin Walsh and Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone have both signaled their dissent with the federal Secure Communities Act, pledging to ban local police from detaining immigrants solely because of suspicions about their immigration status, as required by the Secure Communities Act.

The Secure Communities Act is a Homeland Security program designed to feed fingerprints and other forms of identification of individuals who are arrested by local police departments to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ICE may then issue an immigration detainer, an order to hold detainees while the agency checks their immigration status.

Gov. Deval Patrick opposed the Secure Communities Act until it became a federal mandate in 2012. But he said state police will not detain suspects based on their immigration status.

“When we learn that a person is charged with a state crime by the state police, they are fingerprinted and that information is sent to the federal government for identification purposes,” Patrick said during a meeting with ethnic media. “If that charge is dismissed, we don’t hold that person if they are undocumented. If they have charges elsewhere, then we will inform ICE.”

Patrick said that he is disappointed with the Legislature’s inaction on key immigration reform measures. He has sent representatives from his administration to testify on behalf of the Trust Act, which sets guidelines for honoring ICE immigration detainers, the Safe Driving Bill, which would allow all residents to become trained, licensed and insured regardless of immigration status and the In-State Tuition Bill, which allows illegal immigrants to pay tuition as well.

None of those measures has been approved by the Legislature.

Patrick spoke about issuing licenses to Massachusetts drivers, regardless of their immigration status, as a matter of public safety.

“The issue around driver’s licenses has nothing to do with doing favors for anyone,” he said. “We’re talking about law enforcement. We’re talking about fundamental public safety issues. We want the people who are going to be on our roads to be certified that they know what the rules of the road are. And that’s what a license is.”

When asked about illegal immigrants attending school and paying tuition, Patrick said that offering a helping hand to Dreamers and entrepreneurs would boost economic interests on a national and local level alike.

“There are undocumented young people who are paying for in-state tuition here in Massachusetts. I wish that the tenor and tone and the quality of debate was different in this country and in the Commonwealth. It is not the same to say ‘we should fix our immigration laws’ as saying ‘violating the laws doesn’t matter.’ It does matter. We have ranges of degree in how we respond.

“It’s about the students from foreign lands that come here to start a business and can’t stay because they can’t get an H-1B Visa. It’s any number of our own businesses who are trying to compete in the global economy and can’t move talent around in their own enterprises or recruit talent so broadly in the U.S.”

Many advocacy groups and legislators are in favor of the Trust Act, which would prohibit the Boston Police from detaining illegal immigrants for deportation unless they are convicted of a serious crime.

Gabrielle Farrell, Spokesperson for the City of Boston from Mayor Martin Walsh’s office issued a statement regarding Walsh’s stance on the Trust Act.

“As a son of immigrants, Mayor Walsh has seen firsthand the struggles of people arriving to this country, trying to make a life. Since January, the Boston Police Department has been working closely with Mayor Walsh’s Office of New Bostonians to develop safe and fair detention policies and efficient uses of public safety resources. The BPD has earned the trust of immigrants in the City of Boston. Mayor Walsh supports the Trust Act, and the City’s Corporation Counsel will review the details of Councilor Zakim’s proposal to ensure successful implementation.”

Both the MIRA Coalition and the Comitan de Vecinos support the Trust Act for similar reasons. Joana Dos Santos of the Comitan de Vecinos in Fitchburg said that they hope to work with the new Fitchburg police chief in order to prevent the city from detaining immigrants with no criminal charges.

“People think that these things happen in Boston or other places that are far away,” Dos Santos said. “We’re out there trying to educate people that this is happening in their backyards. This happened in Leominster and can happen anywhere under the Secure Communities.”

Shannon Erwin, State Policy Director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition said, “The Trust Act would help restore community trust in police and rebuild residents’ willingness to share information about crime. It would also protect our state and local police from liability arising from detaining persons without probable cause in violation of the Fourth Amendment.”

President Barack Obama has indicated that he will use executive power to enact change in immigration policy, however details as to what he may mean remain vague.

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