Immigrants can’t wait for protection: Legislature must act this year

SCA rally Feb. 2017A year after we launched our campaign, we have a crucial opportunity, with police backing, to give crucial legal protections to the vast majority of immigrants in our Commonwealth. We have no time to waste.

NOTE, March 9, 2018: When we posted this article on February 26, we were trying to strike a delicate balance between the urgent need to protect immigrants in our Commonwealth, and our deep misgivings about key amendments made to the Safe Communities Act in order to win the police chiefs’ support. In the interest of transparency, we have left the original text below, which previously had the headline “With police support, Mass. can adopt vital legislation this year.”

Upon further discussion with fellow advocates in the Safe Communities Coalition, we have decided to walk away from the redrafted SCA. If passed in its current form, the bill would not only set us back from the Lunn decision, but it would also codify language that is simply unacceptable. We can’t risk moving forward with the knowledge that despite our best efforts, that language could become law.

But we are not giving up. At MIRA and within the Safe Communities Coalition, we are committed to working to pass as many SCA provisions as possible by other means this session, and to fight for as long as it takes to ensure that all immigrants feel welcome and safe in Massachusetts.

Thank you for all you’ve done to advance this cause! We’ll have more updates and action alerts soon.

BOSTON, February 26, 2018 – When the Mass. Major City Chiefs of Police Association and the Mass. Chiefs of Police Association endorsed the Safe Communities Act this month, they sent a powerful message. In the face of ugly rhetoric and fear-mongering that have made many immigrants afraid of calling 911 or reporting crimes, the Chiefs made it clear that in our Commonwealth, the police are there for everyone.

The endorsement was also a game-changer for the SCA, which had just been sent to “study” in both chambers of the Legislature. With the police on our side, we have significant new momentum.

But the Chiefs’ endorsement also requires a difficult compromise. The SCA, as drafted, barred police from detaining people for ICE strictly on civil immigration charges – and in July, the Supreme Judicial Court found, in Lunn v. Commonwealth, that state and local officials have no legal authority to do so.

To win the Chiefs’ support, however, the bill sponsors agreed to an amendment that would delay a person’s bail determination for six hours if Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) lodges a detainer on them, and they meet certain criteria.

The Chiefs, who felt that with Lunn, they lost a valuable tool for keeping criminals behind bars, had previously endorsed a bill sponsored by Governor Charlie Baker that was overbroad and deeply flawed. The SCA amendment is meant to address that concern, but far more narrowly. The delay applies only to bail commissioners; a judge can still grant bail at any point.

Still, the six-hour hold would represent a setback from Lunn, and some of the criteria for eligibility are troubling – most notably, having been arrested for a terrorism-related activity as part of a Joint Terrorism Task Force investigation, or having been convicted of a gang-related offense, as defined in federal law.

In reality, no one would rush to grant bail to someone charged with terrorism, so the clause is superfluous. Including it only highlights Muslims – who are disproportionately targeted by the JTTF – as special threats. Elevating gang-related crimes as particular threats, meanwhile, demonizes Latino youth, who are already being detained in alarming numbers on spurious allegations of gang membership.

The next few months will be critical. In the Senate, the SCA is in the Rules Committee, which will need to review and release it for a vote. In the House, Rep. Juana Matias has filed a new bill, “An Act Relative to the Commonwealth’s Obligation to Preserve Public Safety for all Massachusetts Residents” (HD.4603). As advocates, we will work to try to improve the bills as they move through the Legislature.

But even if the final text is flawed, we will fight for its passage. The alternative is untenable.

New Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) figures reported by the Boston Globe show that in the Boston Area of Responsibility, which includes the six New England states, ICE arrested 2,834 immigrants in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2017. That’s up 52.5% from 1,858 in fiscal 2016. “Noncriminal” arrests more than tripled, from 343 to 1,106.

Our communities are in crisis. Families with undocumented members are living in fear, and as DACA recipients and TPS holders start losing their status, thousands more immigrants will be subject to deportation. Acting ICE Director Tom Homan has explicitly said that his agents “will not turn a blind eye” to lapsed DACA recipients if they encounter them.

We can’t stop ICE from going after Dreamers – or any of our friends and neighbors. But we can stop our state and local resources from being used to aid in deportations.

The redrafted bills still include crucial provisions that would protect the vast majority of immigrants in Massachusetts. They would still prohibit enforcement agencies and the Registry of Motor Vehicles from sharing databases to feed into any federal registry program based on national origin, religion, or other protected characteristics. They would still forbid 287(g) agreements, which deputize state or local law enforcement as ICE agents. And they would still bar police from inquiring about a person’s citizenship or immigration status unless required by law or as an element in a criminal investigation.

The bills also still include due process protections for immigrants in state or local custody, such as being told they can refuse an ICE interview, or hire an attorney. They would require ongoing collection of information about detainer requests and the people turned over to ICE, enabling the Attorney General’s Office to evaluate the civil rights impact of detainer requests. And they would sharply limit when police can notify ICE about someone in their custody.

We have a lot at stake in this legislative battle, and no time to waste. With the Chiefs’ support, we have our best chance yet to make a real impact. Let’s focus all our energy on pushing the Legislature to act, so we can restore community trust and make everyone in our Commonwealth safer.

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See a comparison of the original SCA and the redrafted bills