Debating immigration policy on Beacon Hill

Lawmakers should reverse course on Republican amendment to criminal justice bill

IMMIGRATION REFORM isn’t part of the criminal justice reform bill House members will begin debating today, but Republican lawmakers want it to be. Maybe they’re right and it should be — but the Legislature should instead move in the opposite direction of the harmful plan that Republican amendments are proposing.

Last week, Siham Byah, a 40-year old single mother living in Nahant with her young son became another Massachusetts victim of the Trump deportation machine. She appeared, as required, at the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Burlington for a periodic check-in with immigration authorities. She had done this many times before, as part of a stay of a deportation order that ICE had chosen not to enforce.

This time, however, she was not permitted to leave. ICE took her into custody and did not even give her an opportunity to arrange for relatives to care for her son, a US citizen. Instead he was handed over to the state’s child protection agency.

ICE intends to deport Byah to Morocco, where she has not lived since 1999. Her attorney, Matt Cameron, says that he was told that the order to take her into custody was a “DC decision.”

There have been a lot of “DC decisions” on immigration matters affecting Massachusetts recently. In September, for example, ICE detained nearly 500 people nationwide including 50 living in Massachusetts over the course of four days in an exercise it called “Operation Safe City.” Elizabeth Warren, among many others, denounced the raid as an attempt by President Trump to use “immigration police to try to force his bigoted, anti-immigration agenda on our state.” But you don’t have to believe Elizabeth Warren. The Trump administration itself has said that it’s singling Massachusetts out: The raids were directed at jurisdictions that chose not to comply with requests for cooperation with the Trump deportation agenda.  The targets were eight cities, one county and one state — ours. So proclaimed the feds, rather proudly, in a press release:

“Sanctuary jurisdictions that do not honor detainers or allow us access to jails and prisons are shielding criminal aliens from immigration enforcement and creating a magnet for illegal immigration. As a result, ICE is forced to dedicate more resources to conduct at-large arrests in these communities.”

If Massachusetts had not been an ICE target earlier, it certainly became one in July after the state’s Supreme Judicial Court ruled that state and local law enforcement officials cannot hold a person who is wanted only because of civil immigration violations: “nothing in the statutes or common law of Massachusetts,” the decision stated, “permits our law enforcement officers to make a civil arrest in these circumstances.”

Gov. Baker responded to that decision by filing legislation to try to fill the gap the court had identified, apparently with the hope that he could balance the demands of ICE with the civil liberties guaranteed by the Constitution (a hope that the decision itself does not seem to encourage). His bill allowing, but not requiring, state and local law enforcement to cooperate with ICE would improve matters because, in his words, it would “focus our efforts” on ensuring that federal authorities could remove “dangerous criminals” from the United States.

Except that, as the September raids showed, President Trump’s ICE is not much concerned whether the people it detains are dangerous criminals or not. More than a third of those detained had no criminal record at all, and among those with criminal records, the most frequently reported crime was driving under the influence. (Not to mention that the governor’s bill would permit the detention of a person based on a mere “suspicion” of involvement in terrorism.)

The Trump administration does pay lip service to the importance of public safety even as its immigration practices routinely disregard it. Articles published last month by The Intercept show that then-Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly pressured local ICE officials in Texas to provide the media with “three egregious cases” of criminal behavior on the part of persons it detained after raids, a task the local offices found difficult to complete. Perhaps following this lead, ICE officials in Massachusetts have asserted that Siham Byah has a criminal record that includes convictions for misdemeanor offenses, a contention that her attorney vehemently denies with offers of proof.

Today, as our House of Representatives begins debate on criminal justice reform legislation, some Republican House members are offering Gov. Baker’s immigration bill as an amendment (and others are offering a more punitive variation that permits the detention of any person ICE identifies as a “removable alien”).

The amendments won’t pass. They may be quietly defused through procedural maneuvers with a minimum of fuss, as House Republican amendments often are. But maybe they should be debated. Maybe the Safe Communities Act, a far better (and far more popular proposal) that’s consistent with the SJC’s recent decision, should be offered as a further amendment.

We need to be hearing a lot more about what the ICE has been doing lately, including “Operation Safe City,” and the detention and deportation of people like Siham Byah (and Francisco Rodriguez and John Cunningham before her) and the revocation of immigration protections for residents of Caribbean and Central American countries who are suffering from human rights abuses or natural disasters.

The SJC decision was a victory in an important battle, but as the intervening months have shown, we’re not winning the war.

Margaret Monsell is an attorney at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, a statewide non-profit poverty law and policy center.