Getting Police Out of Immigration Enforcement

Should local police have to enforce immigration rules against undocumented people not implicated in criminal acts?

A drive is on in Massachusetts to free state and local law enforcement from having to cooperate with certain aspects of the federal Secure Communities program, which targets people for deportation.

According to an American Friends Service Committee tally of Department of Homeland Security data, 200 people have been deported since the federal government started up the program in Massachusetts last year, and 62 percent of them had no criminal histories.

A bill, Senate 1135/House 1613, filed at the request of Unitarian Universalist Mass Action and a coalition of community groups, would limit the responsibilities of police in the Bay State to targeting people who are 18 or over, have been sentenced to five years or more in prison, and have not been released by a state court.

The bill—called, like similar bills elsewhere, the Trust Act—also requires that when people are detained by police, they be given lawyers before being turned over to federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) officials. And the costs of detention would have to be paid by the federal government.

Among the supporters of the bill from the Western Massachusetts legislative delegation are Sen. Denise Andrews and Reps. Ellen Story, John Scibak, Cheryl Coakley-Rivera, Aaron Vega and Ben Swan.


The bill was modeled at least in part on a policy developed by the Amherst police department in 2011, according to Just Communities of Western Massachusetts, a project of Springfield-based Western Massachusetts Jobs With Justice. The Amherst PD directive emphasizes that “it is not within the mission of this department to enforce immigration laws.”

Hence, says the directive, signed by Chief Scott Livingstone in August, 2011, “If ICE or another federal agency come into our community to effect an arrest warrant on an individual, and request our assistance… this assistance… would be limited to locating an address, keeping the peace and [controlling] traffic if necessary.”

The directive also states: “Skin color, language, accent, or other individual traits shall not be considered an element in building reasonable suspicion or probable cause, unless these descriptions are pertinent in developing a suspect, such as when we rely on witness or victim recollection of a suspect….A person’s right to file a report, participate in police-community activities, or otherwise benefit from police services shall not be continent upon citizenship or immigration status.”

The 2011 version of the directive came about “because of a lengthy dialogue with the immigrant community and those that work on their behalf and their concerns about how we would address issues with ICE,” Capt. Jennifer Gundersen, head of the Amherst PD’s community policing program, told the Advocate. “Even before August of ‘11, we still had a strong policy that limited work that we did with the ICE. If there was a sweep, our involvement would be assisting in traffic control or keeping the peace, but we don’t conduct sweeps.”

The Northampton City Council also passed a resolution in 2011 stating that the city, “to the extent permissible by law, shall not participate in federal law enforcement programs relating to immigration inforcement, including but not limited to, Secure Communities…”

The resolution adds, “Municipal employees of Northampton, including law enforcement employees, shall not monitor, stop, detain, question, interrogate, or search a person for the purpose of determining that individual’s immigration status.”


In Amherst, the policy was developed partly to aid the community policing effort by encouraging immigrants to trust local law enforcement. Undocumented status makes people ripe to become victims of many classes of crime; the Amherst directive, for example, mentions that undocumented people often have money on them or in their homes because it’s difficult for them to deposit it in banks. This makes them ripe for robberies they may be reluctant to report for fear of deportation, just as they are often reluctant to report wage theft, substandard working conditions—or sexual abuse.

Just Communities offered this quote from Alicia Morales, who emigrated to Springfield from Guatemala: “For months I was abused at work by my boss. He would grab me, and it would leave bruises all over my body. He would tell me, ‘Go ahead, call the police. You don’t matter. They won’t help you.’”

In other parts of the country, communities and states have resisted aspects of the Secure Communities program. In Santa Clara County, Calif., county commissioners voted not to cooperate with the part of the program that asks local law enforcement to hold people in custody for an extra 48 hours after they would normally be released so the ICE can investigate their immigration status. Contra Costa County, Calif., which has had an exceptionally high rate of non-criminal deportations, now has a policy limiting local law enforcement’s cooperation with the program.

The Secure Communities program was started up in 14 jurisdictions by the George W. Bush administration in 2008 and then expanded gradually. Gov. Deval Patrick and other Massachusetts officials objected to its introduction in Massachusetts in 2012, as did the governor of New York when the program was started up there last year, but Washington gave the states no choice.

ICE defends the program, which, it says, since 2008 has removed more than 135,000 convicted criminals from the U.S., including 49,000 violent felons. Opponents say the program also targets people guilty of nothing but overstaying their visas or missing court dates with the ICE.

The Connecticut state legislature passed a form of the Trust Act in June, as did the District of Columbia last year. Also last year, the California state legislature passed a form of the Trust Act, informally known as the “anti-Arizona law,” but the law went back to the drawing boards after the governor demanded changes. New York City has also restricted its cooperation with immigration officials attempting to detain people who are not charged with serious offenses.•


Author: Stephanie Kraft

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