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Legislators probe costs of Safe Communities Act

Jule Pattison-Gordon

Advocates and opponents of the Safe Communities Act turned out for a State House hearing last Friday, where they filled the room to overflowing. The act is a response to President Donald Trump’s deportation efforts and Muslim registry rhetoric. It is aimed at providing greater protections for undocumented immigrants who have not committed crimes.

If implemented, the act would extend statewide a prohibition against local government participation in creating a registry of individuals based on protected characteristics, such as Muslim faith; block local police from being deputized as immigration enforcement agents; and ensure due process rights for those detained in state or local facilitates on civil immigration violations.

The most contentious points of debate centered on elements that prevent state, local or campus police participation in immigration enforcement activities stemming solely from an individual’s immigration status. The measure also prevents these officials from providing the federal Homeland Security department with incarceration status information on a person in custody for any cause other than a serious violent felony.

During the hearing, starkly different viewpoints emerged.

Advocates said passing Safe Communities ensures that civil rights are protected for all; safeguards communities’ economies, public safety and public health; and preserves the integrity of families that have undocumented members living peaceably.

Opponents said the act hamstrings law enforcement by limiting its ability to communicate with a federal agency; allows perpetrators of a civil violation to avoid the consequences; and could make it more difficult to shut down criminals who are undocumented. Some said it would be too restrictive to provide federal agents with detainment information only on serious violent criminals.

Supporters of the bill sought to clarify that under the act, if federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency asked state police to detain someone suspected of having overstayed their work visa, state police could not do so — but if ICE asked them to detain someone suspected of having information about a murder and that person happened to be an immigrant, state police could comply.

Big names weighed in on the debate. Gov. Charlie Baker stated in a press release that the act would roll back measures that keep dangerous convicted criminals off the streets. The executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, meanwhile, said in a statement that the act would prevent waste of state and local resources on pursuing people who are not safety threats. During testimony, law enforcement officials and state legislators came down on both sides.

Concrete policy aside, whatever passes will shape the climate of Massachusetts, and testimony at times grew emotional. An eleven-year-old boy from Thomas Edison Elementary said he fears that without the act, his hard-working parents may be deported before his three-year-old sister is old enough to remember them. Meanwhile, a Melville woman said her 22-year-old son was hit and killed by a drunk driver who turned out to be an undocumented immigrant with a record. While law enforcement’s normal procedures had failed to prevent the accident, she said deportation would have.

Safer or not?

Those advocating for the passage of Safe Communities say that without the act, immigrant victims and witnesses to crimes are less willing to report crimes or assist in police investigations for fear that they will be racially profiled or that engagement with police will result in their or a family member’s deportation.

Opponents of the act said there already exists a special type of visa granted to victims of serious abuse who aid in the crime’s investigation or prosecution. But act advocates shot back that recent examples demonstrate that this U-Visa is not sufficiently effective. They point to the account of a domestic abuse victim in another state who was deported upon reporting the crime. In a local case, an immigrant went to meet with his Boston-based employer about workers’ compensation after breaking his leg on the job, only to find ICE agents waiting. Perpetrators of sexual, domestic and labor abuse are especially likely to remain uncaught, advocates said, as vulnerable people fear reporting them, which in turn makes the commonwealth less safe for everyone.

Emmanuel Lusardi, liaison for immigrant affairs for Cambridge, noted that reports of sexual assault dropped 25 percent in Los Angeles’ Latino community since Trump came into office, and that the LA police chief believes the drop reflects a decline in disclosure, not a decline in assault incidents.

Lawrence Rep. Juana Matias said the Safe Communities Act can work for law enforcement. She pointed to a recent major drug bust in her city, which has had a Trust Act in place since 2016.

“Our immigrant community members, both documented and undocumented, served as critical witnesses” and provided important information to the investigation and prosecution, Matias said.

Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone credited sanctuary city status as one driver of the 50-percent drop in crime since Somerville adopted the status in 1987. In response to some opponents’ fears that immigrants who are criminals would better be able to hide under Safe Communities, Curtatone said the act instead turns more lights on the shadows by allowing immigrants to help police capture criminals, whom law-abiding immigrants do not want to be part of their communities either.

Rep. Marjorie Decker and others clarified as well that the Safe Communities Act does not protect criminals from normal justice. It only prevents targeting otherwise law-abiding residents from prosecution based exclusively on their immigration status.

“If you break the law, there is no sanctuary. If you hurt someone else, there is no sanctuary,” Decker said. “This is about ensuring people who every day are doing their best, doing their jobs, contributing to our community, making safe decisions for themselves and their families, are not having their families ripped apart.”

Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz noted that being in the country without legal status is a low-level offense: It is simply a civil violation, as is speeding.

Meanwhile, opponents such as Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson said the bill would block potentially useful lines of communication with the federal government and make it easier for immigrants who commit crimes to return to local communities instead of being sent to their countries of origin. Moreover, he argued that that restricting custody-information-sharing with ICE to cases of serious violent felony only is too limiting and would leave out perpetrators of offenses that can be tried as misdemeanors, such as assault and battery on a pregnant woman and possession of child pornography.

The sheriff also said he believes that even excluding incidents in which they are perpetrators, undocumented immigrants drive up crime rate, because they are a population vulnerable to be taken advantage of, and thus ready victims for native-born offenders.

“By having more people here illegally, we have more crimes, whether they’re victims or perpetrating them, we’re exposing our communities to more crimes,” Hodgson said.

Legality?

Some questioned whether it is legal to detain someone for ICE if the person already has completed their sentence, had their sentence dismissed or has paid bail and been released pretrial. Re-confining them could count as arresting someone twice or as detaining them without probable cause. Some Safe Communities advocates said leveraging deportation against any undocumented immigrant appears to be a one-size-fits-all punishment that does not always match the severity of the offense.

Community and economic well-being

The act’s impact extends to education, economics, public health and climate, said activists. Education activists said students cannot focus when afraid of losing their parents to deportation. Curtatone said fears of deportation stop people from seeking medical care and from going out and patronizing businesses.

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