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Activists press legislators on Safe Communities Act

Bill would protect Massachusetts immigrants against deportation

Kenneal Patterson

A group of Haitian pastors and advocates sent a letter to Massachusetts legislators last week urging a favorable report for the Safe Communities Act, noting that the ongoing pandemic has demonstrated the importance of protecting immigrants, who risk COVID-19 infections while facing the threat of deportation.

“In the past four years, a deep, pervasive fear has taken hold in immigrant communities due to aggressive enforcement and a multitude of hostile policies,” the letter reads. “Many avoid seeking health care — especially emergency services, but also care for serious chronic conditions,” due to the fear that public officials will share data to Immigrations and Custom Enforcement (ICE).

The Legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Safety was scheduled to take action on the bill Monday but extended its deadline to July 15.

Public health officials often conduct contact tracing when someone shows symptoms of COVID-19. Fear of public officials has prevented many immigrants from sharing information, ultimately impeding efforts to contain the pandemic.

“The concern is that people are not giving up their contacts because they’re afraid of deportation of themselves, their friends or their family members,” said Amy Grunder, director of legislative affairs for the Massachusetts Immigrant Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA).

Most infected individuals are asked to provide contact information. The statewide average is only two contacts, even though immigrant families are much bigger, according to data provided by state Rep. Denise Provost.

Grunder told the Banner that healthcare institutions are not sharing information with ICE and that the fear is “imagined.” However, the distrust of law enforcement “bleeds into other institutions.”

Immigrant communities are the most impacted by the disease, she said, but also unlikely to cooperate with public health officials. She acknowledged studies that found Haitian and Central American individuals to be hospitalized at two to three times the rate of white people. Furthermore, neighborhoods and towns with large Haitian populations like Dorchester, Brockton and Randolph have some of the highest infection rates in the state.

“If we want people to feel confident in local public officials … the Safe Communities Act would send a really strong reassuring message to the immigrant community,” she said.

The Safe Communities Act has always been a public health and safety bill, said Grunder. Fears of deportation have prevented immigrants from getting health insurance or seeing doctors. Other immigrants are afraid of making a police report. Some women facing domestic abuse do not report the violence.

“That’s always been a problem,” said Grunder. “Now of course it’s worse because of the shelter-in-place rules.”

The bill would disentangle law enforcement and public safety work from immigration enforcement, said Grunder.

“It provides concrete protection against some of this continuing involvement in immigration enforcement, and protects basic rights,” she said.

Grunder noted certain provisions from the bill.

“One provision says that law enforcement shouldn’t ask questions about immigration status because of the chilling effect that it has on people seeking assistance,” she said. This policy is already practiced by Massachusetts state police and other local police departments across the city, she said. The bill would make the policy a “general standard” for the whole state.

She also noted that ICE agents often visit houses of corrections or police lockups to identify people that may be deportable. Oftentimes, individuals are not warned that they’re part of an immigration interview. Grunder said that many people do not know the interviewer is from ICE or that they have the right to decline the interview and call their own lawyer.

“It’s only fair for people to know they’re being interviewed by an immigration agent,” she said. The bill would require law enforcement to provide a standardized form informing individuals of the immigration interview. Individuals do not have to participate in the interview, she said.

Many immigrants are unaware of their own rights, Grunder said. She’s even heard of individuals signing their own deportation orders unknowingly. The bill would “create guidelines and standards to protect existing rights” and cultivate more trust with local police. It would also provide police officers with guidance on how to work with these communities, she said.

The bill also limits sharing of an individual’s release date and time. Many immigrants are unable to testify during court proceedings if ICE is notified before the court date. Under the bill, said Grunder, ICE wouldn’t be notified until the end of an incarceration sentence.

The bill has received the support of multiple organizations, including the Massachusetts Public Health Association.

The fear of deportation is preventing many from getting the help they need.

“We’re talking about family separation here,” said Grunder. “It doesn’t just happen at the border. People will do anything to avoid it, and now that has potentially fatal consequences, not to mention the public health consequences of not getting accurate tracing.”

The advocates’ letter to the Committee notes that the state legislature has an opportunity to show immigrant communities that “in Massachusetts, immigrants are safe and protected, regardless of their status, and state and local agencies will not collaborate in deportations.”

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