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Advocates push for immigration bill

Act would bar local immigration enforcement

Kenneal Patterson
Advocates push for immigration bill
Demaris Velasquez speaks during a press conference at the State House. PHOTO: KENNEAL PATTERSON

Demaris Velasquez was undocumented for 22 years after leaving Guatemala. For years, she was afraid that U.S. immigration officials would deport her. Now she fears that if the Safe Communities Act bill before the Massachusetts Legislature doesn’t pass, the estimated 173,000 undocumented immigrants in Massachusetts will continue to live in fear, not only of deportation, but even of reporting crimes or seeking medical care.

“If we sent a message that Massachusetts is willing to pass bills based on human rights needs instead of fear or phobia, then our community, no matter where they were born from, no matter … their immigration status, can develop trust in local police officers and be able to report any type of crimes,” she told the Banner.

Velasquez, director of programs at Agencia Alpha, was one of many advocates who attended a hearing last Friday on the bill, filed by Sen. James Eldridge, Rep. Ruth Balser, Rep. Liz Miranda and Rep. Nika Elugardo.

“People won’t report crimes,” said Velasquez. “We have people who are victims of domestic violence who are afraid of doing that. We have little children who are born here in the United States, and they are afraid that their parents will be stopped and deported just because they are speaking Spanish on the street.”

Balser said that victims and witnesses of crimes are afraid to contact the police, out of fear that their immigration status will be questioned. Ill children cannot obtain medical care, she said, because parents are scared to go to doctors.

“I think that people in the immigrant community are frightened,” she told the Banner. The SCA, she said, is “a way of alleviating some of those fears. And so if it doesn’t pass, it means people stay frightened.”

Balser said that she filed the bill partly for personal reasons.

“My decision to be the lead House sponsor on this bill is informed in large measure by my being a Jewish American who has the historical memory of the doors of this country being closed in the 1920s and 1930s when Europe’s Jews needed a safe place to go,” she said. “I was brought up with a simple message: ‘Never again.’”

She referred to the strict immigration laws that the U.S. enacted against Jews that fled Europe before the Holocaust.

“I think a lot of us are just very sensitive to that history being repeated,” she said. “It’s very important that America welcome refugees and immigrants. We’re supposed to be a safe haven.”

Balser told the Banner that she is optimistic the bill will pass. The bill already has several co-sponsors, including the Massachusetts Immigration and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA), the largest group in New England advocating for immigrants and refugees.

Amy Grunder, MIRA’s director of legislative affairs, said that passage of the SCA would restore confidence in public institutions. The bill ensures that police and court officials don’t question immigration status. It also guarantees basic due process — Grunder noted that undocumented immigrants would be advised to contact an attorney before submitting to questioning. Under the bill, law enforcement would notify U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) of a person’s release from custody only after they have served a sentence — not before their day in court.

The SCA also ends what are known as 287(g) agreements. This section, featured in the Immigration and Nationality Act, encourages collaboration between ICE and state/local police officers. Grunder said that these agreements deputize these officers as immigration agents at state and local expense.

“The purpose of the Safe Communities Act is to draw a line between public safety work of our law enforcement officials and [federal] immigration enforcement,” she told the Banner. “Currently we have a situation where the federal government is using our state and local law enforcement to assist them in finding and deporting immigrant state residents, pretty indiscriminately at this point. So the purpose of the bill is to ensure that police stay focused on their public safety responsibilities, and work with the federal government on other matters.”

When local police officers are involved in deportation, she said, communities are afraid to report crime — whether it be workplace safety violations, wage theft, and even domestic violence or sexual assault, whose victims are often women.

“One of the hardest things to get those women to do is make a police report. And it may not even be fear for themselves — it could be fear that someone in their family will get deported,” Grunder said.

Vulnerable status

Most immigrants in Massachusetts — around 35.8% — come from Latin American and Caribbean countries. The Haitian community has especially been affected by harsh immigration policies recently, as many residents fear the revocation of their Temporary Protected Status, or TPS. In 2010, a devastating earthquake killed hundreds of thousands. Survivors fled the country and were granted protection in the United States. The TPS has been extended multiple times — now, until 2021, but uncertainty remains.

Pastor Dieufort J. Fleurissaint, chairman of Haitian-Americans United, told the Banner that these immigrants, alongside the undocumented residents, live in constant fear of deportation.

“They’re afraid to go even out,” he said. “Even to take their kids to doctors. Even to take their kids to school, because — ‘What about if police stopped me? For being black? And then they find out that I don’t have my paper, they can turn me over to ICE for deportation.’”

Boston’s workforce also faces this threat. Thomas O’Brien, a cofounder of Massachusetts Business Immigrant Coalition (MBIC), said that one out of five workers in the state is an immigrant. Immigrants must be protected, he said, because the state’s reputation as a diverse and inclusive place is central to economic competitiveness.

“The fear that has taken hold in immigrant communities makes it easy for unscrupulous employers to mistreat and take advantage of workers,” he said. “We want all workers in Massachusetts to be safe and well treated on the job.”

Eldridge told the Banner that he first filed the bill, whose formal name is ‘An Act to Protect the Civil Rights and the Safety of All Massachusetts Residents,’ eight years ago, in response to an increase in deportation.

“This was actually filed in response not to President Trump, but the Obama administration,” he said. “What we were seeing was undocumented immigrants that hadn’t broken any laws, maybe got a speeding ticket or driving without a license, and they were being pulled into the immigration system and being deported by ICE. I wanted to make sure that Massachusetts law enforcement and taxpayer dollars were not aiding and abetting a mass deportation agenda.”

Divergent arguments

Not everyone has expressed support for the bill.

Henry Barbaro, a Newton resident, said that the ‘Safe Communities Act’ was a terrible name for the bill.

“It’s misleading and does not reflect the bill’s purpose,” he testified. “A more accurate, descriptive name would have been ‘An Act to Obstruct Enforcement of Immigration Law.’… To claim that impeding the function of law enforcement agencies would somehow make our community safer is just plain ridiculous.”

Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for restricting immigration, also testified against the bill.

“Ninety percent of the people removed from the country by ICE, the people they are looking for, are the people that come to their attention because they were arrested for crimes at the state and local level,” she said.

Vaughan’s testimony was challenged during the hearing, however, because her organization has been called a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center due to its “repeated circulation of white nationalist and antisemitic writers.”

Next steps for SCA

On Feb. 5, legislative committees must decide on all bills referred to them. They can recommend that a bill advances, does not pass, or is extended. Grunder said that extension was the most likely option.

“What the elected leaders of Massachusetts do in response, or what they fail to do, will define our place and their place in history,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. “Silence can constitute complicity. Inaction can constitute acquiescence.”

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