Immigration enforcement bill draws controversy at hearing

Advocates want line drawn over whether police can cooperate with ICE

THE SAFE COMMUNITIES ACT saw its heyday on Friday with eight hours of testimony before the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security.  

Refiled in 2019, the Safe Communities Act limits the communications between law enforcement entities and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

It also prevents local police from questioning someone about their immigration status. Police officers would also be unable to notify the Department of Homeland Security when someone is about to be released from custody unless their sentence is about to end. A final aspect of the bill would end 287g agreements, or the ability for the Department of Correction and county sheriffs to maintain contracts with ICE.

Massachusetts is the only state in New England with such agreements, specifically with the Department of Correction, Bristol, Barnstable, and Plymouth County Sheriffs’ offices. 

It was a day filled with division.

Newton Rep. Ruth Balser, a bill co-sponsor, said there are steps the state can take to make Massachusetts “a safe and welcoming place for immigrants and refugees.” 

The Massachusetts GOP had slammed the measure before anyone even stepped onto Beacon Hill for a much-anticipated hearing Friday, saying it would limit important local and state police interactions with federal immigration officials.

A more truthful name for this bill is “The Unsafe Act to Disrupt Communities,” wrote Massachusetts Republican Party chairman Jim Lyons in an emailed messaged Thursday.

Federal immigration policy changes have left families wondering if they will be divided by deportation. Bill sponsors hope that the legislation will make it more difficult for law enforcement to detain on civil penalties, like being in the country illegally. Several attorneys and advocates testified seeing people detained by ICE going to courthouses and at traffic stops. For the immigrants that did testify, it was personal.  

 “I wake up in the morning thinking, what will it be if my parents aren’t here?” said 13-year-old Brian Rosa of Allston, as he described living with a family of various legal statuses.  

Maria Rodriguez, 42, came to the US illegally 20 years ago to work and send money back to her family in Guatemala. She has a restraining order against a man that she was married to for many years, but only after the man told her that he would report her to immigration officials if she reported the abuse and have authorities take away her children.  

When he accused her of abusing him and police showed up to question her, Maria was encouraged by her daughter to open up about the abuse. The Waltham police believed her and issued the restraining order. “I don’t want anyone to live the way I lived,” she told legislators. “Please pass this bill.”  

During the last session, the Senate adopted Eldridge’s budget amendment on a 25 to 19 vote, but the measure didn’t survive budget talk in either chamber. Antipathy toward the legislation continues, with Bristol County Sheriff Tom Hodgson, and groups like SAFE Boston and Advocates for Victims of Illegal Alien Crime testifying.  

“Our family as we knew it was destroyed, and we are now truly permanently separated,” said Maureen Maloney who chairs the latter organization and whose deceased son Matthew Denice was dragged beneath a truck driven by an undocumented immigrant under the influence of alcohol in 2011 

Nicolas Guaman of Ecuador was convicted of manslaughter and motor vehicle homicide. Maloney told legislators that her son is dead because of “sanctuary policies” and because lawmakers have put “illegal aliens before the protection of Americans.”  

Acton Sen. Jamie Eldridge, Boston Rep. Liz Miranda, and Balser testified as lead sponsors of the House and Senate bills, with Eldridge telling a story about visiting the family of a deported Brazilian immigrant who didn’t have a license and was pulled over for speeding. Eldridge added that this would not have happened if the law had been implemented because local police would not have been able to call federal immigration enforcement.  

Spencer Rep Peter Durant asked about the legal reason for why US Immigration and Customs Enforcement had deported the man. “He overstayed his tourist visa,” said Eldridge, adding that that was it- and it was only a civil infraction. Durant went on to ask Eldridge if he and his co-sponsors support open borders. Balser said, that that point was not relevant to the bill at hand.  

Durant pressed, “What constitutes a criminal activity and what would constitute something that allows for deportation?” Durant said. “Wouldn’t we suggest that this particular gentleman had at least committed some crime?” 

“Nothing in this bill limits police from responding to criminal activity,” Balser said. “Nothing in this bill prevents federal and state and local officials from communicating with each other about criminal activity. That’s not what this bill does. 

In another contentious exchange, right-leaning think-tank Center for Immigration Studies’ Jessica Vaughan said the bill would allow the release of deportable non-citizen offenders, who she says should instead be transferred to ICE custody for removal. 

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

She cited the recent sexual assault and murder of a 92-year-old woman in New York City by an undocumented immigrant as an example of “sanctuary city policies.” The 21-year-old man had been previously arrested for assaulting his father, and released.   

Rep. Hank Naughton of Worcester asked about Vaughan’s background, saying he was “jarred” to get testimony from an organization characterized as an anti-immigrant hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, to the gasps and applause of many in the audience. Vaughan said that the characterization was incorrect.