Gov. Deval Patrick's public safety administration has sat for a year on a request by federal immigration authorities to sign up for a controversial new program aimed at finding and deporting immigrants with serious criminal backgrounds, preventing local police outside of Boston from taking part in it, a FOX Undercover investigation has found.
The U.S. Bureau of Customs and Immigration asked state officials in September 2009 to sign a memorandum of agreement they say is needed to activate the program, known as Secure Communities, across Massachusetts. But that agreement remains unsigned, meaning no police department in Massachusetts except Boston can access the program, federal officials say. Boston police joined the program as part of a pilot initiative.
Bruce Chadbourne, head of the New England field office of the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement's detention and removal division, said he didn't know why the agreement remains unsigned.
"I couldn't speak on behalf of the governor or the state of Massachusetts. I think there's interest and maybe they're just moving slowly at their own pace, but I'm hopeful that in the end we'll be able to work together because I think this is a good program," he told FOX Undercover.
Chadbourne said Secure Communities is succesful because it helps US immigration authorities identify and deport illegal immigrants with serious criminal records, so-called Level 1 offenders.
"Our goal is to pick up those who are priorities, which are Level 1, who are convicted for serious, heinous crimes -- murder, rape, armed robbery. Things like that," Chadbourne said. "We've picked up some very bad people and not just gotten them off the streets. We've removed them from the country."
Secure Communities works by expanding how fingerprints taken by police are used. Now, when police in Masschusetts arrest and fingerprint somebody, the fingerprints are checked against Massachusettts and FBI databases.
With Secure Communities, those fingerprints would also automatically be transmitted to additional immigration-related databases. If a match is made, ICE could detain and possibly deport them.
Boston was one of the first police departments in the country to begin these checks four years ago. Federal officials credit Secure Communities for finding people like the suspect arrested by Boston police for domestic assault and battery in 2009 but who actually was actually an illegal immigrant with gang affiliations who had been previously deported.
"It's one-stop shopping. They run the check, they get the criminal history and they get immigration history while running the fingerprints," Chadbourne said.
But it's no one-stop shopping for any other police department in Massachusetts. ICE says they need the state to sign the memorandum of agreement to expand in Massachusetts beyond Boston.
So what does Massachusetts say? At first, a spokesman for the Executive Office of Public Safety denied holding up Secure Communities, telling FOX Undercover in August, "We have the infrastructure in place and that is a program that is a choice for cities and towns."
This week the spokesman admitted in a statement, " We are engaged in ongoing conversations about Secure Communities."
We asked whether Gov. Patrick supports the program, but the spokesman would not expand upon his statement, which says, "The administration supports the deportation of those aliens/illegal immigrants who commit serious crimes."
"They're certainly missing an opportunity to identify criminal aliens and have them removed from the country," said Jessica Vaughan of the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports stronger immigration law enforcement, including Secure Communities.
"The end result of this program is that people who are committing crimes here who are foreign nationals get removed. There are fewer criminals plaguing Massachusetts communities. There's no cost to the state. ICE is able to do its job more efficiently. It's a no-brainer," she said.
No-brainer to some, but not everyone is keen about immigration enforcement. Under Governor Patrick, state police are forbidden from asking about a suspect's immigration status unless it pertains to an investigation.
Others like immigration advocate Eva Millona of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, worry that Secure Communities will actually make communities less secure.
"People will go underground and they will be afraid to go forward and report their crime to the police based on real fears of other family members having no status or being here unlawfully," Millona said.
While Millona's organization supports a crackdown on criminal aliens, she worries that Secure Communities will give local police an incentive to profile immigrants for arrest. She doesn't want Massachusetts to aprove the Secure Communities agreement.
"I don't think it should be signed before a reform of the whole program occurs," she said.
Asked about the concerns that Millona and other advocates for immigrants have about Secure Communities, ICE's Chadbourne said, "I would be more uneasy about letting serious criminals walk around our streets, and because of this program we're able to pick these people up."
But outside of Boston, this program won't find anyone in Massachusetts until the state acts.
"Now the ball is in their court. We're just waiting to hear back from them," Chadbourne said.
ICE may be waiting a long time. The Patrick administration refused to tell FOX Undercover if it will sign the agreement to activate Secure Communities statewide.
Despite that, it's picking up some support here.
Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis says it's been a big success in his city. And now a spokesperson for Attorney General Martha Coakley tells us she's in favor of it, too.
Full statement from Mass. Exec. Office of Public Safety:
We are engaged in ongoing conversations about Secure Communities with ICE. The administration supports the deportation of those aliens/illegal immigrants who commit serious crimes.
We also support robust information sharing among all law enforcement partners on federal, state and local levels.
ICE has made a request, through a letter to us, that although Secure Communities program is deployed in the Commonwealth, they seek to formalize the mutual responsibilities and existing relationship between the (Massachusetts Criminal History Systems Board) ICE and the State Identification Bureau and we are in the midst of discussions with them on that request.