BOSTON (AP) - Immigrant advocates are pressing lawmakers to back legislation they say will help reduce the level of deportations in Massachusetts.
Several dozen activists rallied on the steps of the Statehouse on Wednesday in favor of the bill that would instruct local law enforcement agencies not to forward information to federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials on illegal immigrants who don't have serious criminal convictions.
Sen. James Eldridge, the bill's lead Senate sponsor, said the measure is a reaction to the federal Secure Communities program, which shares arrestee fingerprints with the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security.
Eldridge said most of those deported under the program from Massachusetts had no criminal convictions. He said lower level encounters with police, like traffic stops, shouldn't end up triggering deportations.
"The Secure Communities policy is supposed to be focused on violent and high level criminals," the Acton Democrat said. "That's not what's happening in Massachusetts."
The program went into effect in Massachusetts last year despite concerns raised by Gov. Deval Patrick and others.
Eldridge's bill seeks to prevent local law enforcement agencies from responding to requests from ICE officials to detain suspected illegal immigrants if the individual has been found not guilty, if charges have been dismissed or if they have been granted release pending trial.
The bill also instructs law enforcement agencies not to make inmates available to ICE for interviews unless they can have a lawyer present and are offered a consent form in a language they understand.
Inmates who are hospitalized or on suicide watch would also not be made available to ICE, and inmates could not be denied bail based solely on a written request issued by ICE under the bill. The legislation also states there is "no legal authority for law enforcement officials in the Commonwealth to enforce federal civil immigration laws."
Backers of Secure Communities, however, describe the program as an important tool to remove people who are in the country illegally and who have been arrested for a crime.
State Rep. Denise Provost is one of the bill's sponsors in the Massachusetts House.
"I am so sick and tired of getting calls from constituents saying my neighbor has been taken away, the mother of the family next door is being deported," the Somerville Democrat said.
Patricia Montes, executive director of Centro Presente, which focuses on organizing for immigrant and worker rights, was another of the speakers at the rally.
"The federal government continues to argue that Secure Communities is a program that only targets and deports criminals," Montes said. "That is not true."
Massachusetts lawmakers aren't the first in the nation to draft a bill that would bar local law enforcement officers from detaining suspects for possible deportation unless they were charged with serious or violent crimes.
In November, California Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a similar bill known as the TRUST Act, arguing that it was fatally flawed because it omitted too many serious crimes that would warrant detention.
Lawmakers in Connecticut and Florida have also introduced measures that would ban their public safety agencies from cooperating with requests to detain people suspected of being in the country illegally.
Local authorities in a dozen communities - including New York City; Washington DC; Cook County, Ill.; Milwaukee County, Wis.; and Amherst, Mass. - have filed similar measures, including some that do not compel law enforcement agencies to comply with the initiative.
The Secure Communities program has spread to more than 3,000 local jurisdictions since it was first introduced in 2008.
More than 23 million fingerprints had been scanned by the end of last year, flagging nearly 1.3 million with immigration records. Of those, more than 246,924 were deported, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.