Four months after Gov. Deval Patrick promised to sign up for a federal program that links state and local police with immigration authorities, one public safety official says he’s tired of waiting for the program to be activated in Massachusetts and wants to take matters into his own hands.
Plymouth County Sheriff Joseph McDonald has asked U.S. immigration authorities for permission to join the Secure Communities program on his own regardless of whether the program is in place elsewhere in the state.
Secure Communities allows fingerprints taken by local police to be automatically checked against immigration databases maintained by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Federal immigration authorities say they want to identify and ultimately deport immigrants with serious criminal records.
Meanwhile, the debate over Secure Communities is heating up as the Patrick administration holds a series of hearings across the state on the program. At a meeting earlier this month in Lawrence, supporters of Secure Communities, including Tea Party members, spoke in favor of it, saying it will catch and deport illegal immigrants, especially those who commit crimes.
“I don't want someone who just raped someone in my town who is an illegal alien,” one man said at the meeting.
But the other side says Secure Communities will lead to racial profiling and police making arrests just to try and get people deported.
“We are not criminals. Do not criminalize immigrants,” one woman said at the meeting.
Immigrants aren't the only ones suspicious of the program.
Patrick told FOX 25 that he, too, fears Secure Communities will lead to profiling.
“We have a lot of concerns that have been raised about the profiling that may come from it, and it's my job not to take simple solutions but to think about the impact on people. And that's exactly what we're doing,” he said.
The governor's public safety Secretary, Mary Beth Heffernan, says she's also concerned about the people who are being deported.
“We've heard from folks that tell us it is not being used for just the most violent people, so we need to weigh public safety with folks' individual rights,” Heffernan said.
Secure Communities has been a thorn in the administration's side ever since FOX Undercover revealed last September that the administration had been quietly sitting for a year on a request to sign up for the program.
It turned into a campaign issue for the governor, who was attacked by his opponents for the delay.
“It’s in states all over the country. What exactly are you waiting for?” FOX Undercover reporter Mike Beaudet asked Patrick last September.
“You want me to say the same thing one more time?” Patrick replied.
“No, I'd like you to give us an answer. Do you support it or not?” Beaudet said.
“I just did. Thank you,” Patrick said.
Patrick finally gave his answer in December, saying he would sign up for Secure Communities after a series of public hearings.
But McDonald, a Republican, says he’s tired of waiting.
“I don't understand how they say it goes too far. I personally don't think it goes far enough,” McDonald said.
McDonald has asked U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE, whether he can activate Secure Communities without waiting for Patrick to agree to activate the program.
“It seems like the governor is dragging his feet a little on this?” Beaudet asked.
“I should hope that’s not the case. I am working very diligently down here with our partners at ICE, at Immigration and Customs, to see that the program is implemented,” McDonald said.
McDonald's jail already houses illegal immigrants for the federal government, along with inmates who are awaiting trial or who have been sentenced to up to two-and-a-half years.
McDonald wants Secure Communities so ICE will know who he's detaining in Plymouth County in case they need to be deported rather than released in Massachusetts.
“Secure Communities is very much a common sense program … because really I think the more information that we share…the more bad guys we're putting into jail and the more we're enhancing public safety in all of our communities, and that's really what I think our jobs are all about,” McDonald said.
McDonald may just have to do his job without Secure Communities though, because federal immigration officials say the state needs to sign the agreement before it can be activated in Massachusetts.
That doesn't include Boston, which was one of the first places in the country to get this as a pilot program in 2006.
While Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis has said Secure Communities is a big success, Heffernan says public safety officials are doing their own evaluation.