The Safe Communities Act, or S.1401, a bill currently making its way through the Massachusetts House of Representatives, stipulates that law enforcement shall not question people about their immigration status and that people taken into custody may only be interviewed about their immigration status after giving their written consent. According to the bill, these people have a right to seek legal counsel at their own expense and local police should not notify federal immigration officials when someone is released from custody, unless they’ve been released from prison.
This is the fourth term in which the bill has been filed, marking seven years since State Senator James Eldridge first introduced it. Eldridge confirmed in an interview with the Daily that the bill will be scrutinized in a Dec. 2 hearing with the Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security, the next step in putting the bill up to a vote.
This hearing will come at the heels of the Supreme Court’s long-awaited decision on whether to allow President Donald Trump to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival.
A Sanctuary State?
Similar to laws that create sanctuary cities, the Safe Communities Act would discourage or prevent local law enforcement from enforcing federal immigration law or cooperating with authorities like Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
If the bill passes, Massachusetts would become the first “sanctuary state,” although several other states have passed legislation to limit ICE’s reach.
Though the bill was first drafted in 2012 during former President Barack Obama’s administration, its proponents argue it has become especially necessary in the era of Trump. Eldridge pointed to a 2017 executive order by the Trump administration, intended to “direct executive departments and agencies to employ all lawful means to enforce the immigration laws of the United States,” including deporting undocumented immigrants and eliminating the Priority Enforcement Program, an Obama-era program that focused ICE attention on individuals convicted of crimes.
“Even though they are working hard, contributing to the local community, belong to a local church, they lack legal status, so they’ve been getting deported,” Eldridge said in an interview with the Daily. “This was happening already under the Obama administration, but it’s only increased under the Trump administration.”
Eldridge cited his experience with his constituency in the Middlesex and Worcester counties as his reason for drafting and supporting the Safe Communities Act.
“A significant percentage of the Latino and Brazilian communities in Massachusetts are undocumented,” he said. “In my 17 years as a legislator, I have seen and met with constituents who have been ripped apart by ICE.”
A Pew Research Center study published in June estimates that the undocumented population in Massachusetts rose by 95,000 between 2010 and 2017. There were approximately 275,000 undocumented people living in Massachusetts in 2017.
To Eldridge and the bill’s cosponsors, like Massachusetts State Senator Patricia Jehlen — whose district, the Second Middlesex District, includes Somerville and Medford — the purpose of the Safe Communities Act is, as its name indicates, safety.
“Law enforcement for local and state police, [who are] not in charge of enforcing any federal law … can’t be enforcing federal immigration law because it’s going to make Massachusetts less safe,” Eldridge said. “If an immigrant community thinks that the police in their city or town is collaborating with ICE, it’s not going to be reporting crimes.”
He pointed to the example of domestic violence victims being hesitant to report their assailants due to their immigration status. Jehlen also pointed to federal policies that could make immigrants feel unsafe in their communities.
“If one person is afraid to call the police and report a crime because there is a chance they might be deported, often separating families and leaving holes in communities, that crime might continue and affect other people,” she said. “I want people to feel safe in their neighborhoods and around the state because immigration status does not mean a person does not have valuable contributions to a community.”
Somerville and Medford have instituted protections for undocumented communities. Somerville counts itself a sanctuary city, while Medford prefers to call itself a “safe community” and has local legislation in place to limit local police from collaborating with federal immigration authorities.
Jehlen believes that the rights given by sanctuary cities should expand beyond the local level.
“I have heard from young people in the district who are afraid to leave Somerville because they know it is a sanctuary city and is not trying to deport them or their parents,” she said. “They are Massachusetts residents and should feel safe and be a part of everything the state they call home has to offer.”
A Long Process
Eldridge is cautiously optimistic that this version of the bill will make it past the House of Representatives because of its more narrow focus, in part due to the Lunn decision in 2017. The Lunn decision, a “landmark decision” by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, prevents police from holding someone because of their immigration status longer than a U.S. citizen or permanent resident; its passage allowed for similar language to be removed from this session’s version of the Safe Communities Act.
However, some have voiced opposition to the act and its potential constraints on police power. Brian Kyes, chief of the Chelsea Police Department and president of the Massachusetts Major City Chiefs of Police Association (MMCC), says that though he supports components of the bill, he wishes that it included a clause that was added to a previous version. Last session’s Safe Communities Act included input from the MMCC that allowed local law enforcement to hold an undocumented person for six hours after being arrested if they had previously been convicted of a serious crime. This clause is now contradicted by the Lunn decision.
“That’s what we’re saying with our language [in the earlier version of the bill], is to hold certain people that are dangerous threats based on their past record of convictions for a period, not for more than six hours,” Kyes said. “People are free, based on Lunn, to walk out the door and never be seen again.”
However, Kyes also commended the Safe Communities Act for its call to ban 287(g) agreements, which are contracts with federal immigration agencies like ICE that allow local law enforcement to act as federal immigration agents. Kyes said the community he serves has a high immigrant population and that ICE officers come to Chelsea several times per week.
“If I or any member of the 111 police officers in Chelsea … were to act as mini ICE agents, that would be a serious problem,” he said. “Because at the end of the day, it’s all about trust. It’s all about the residents that we work for trusting the police.”
Eldridge said that the Massachusetts State Senate accounted for the passage of the Safe Communities Act when setting this year’s budget, indicating a majority support from state senators.
If the bill makes it through the Massachusetts State House of Representatives, it would need to be signed by the state’s Republican governor, Charlie Baker. Supporters of the Safe Communities Act have until July 31, 2020 to get the act to Baker.
Since Eldridge filed the bill in January, his office and immigrant advocacy groups have been focused on educating people about the bill. In particular, Eldridge highlighted the role of testimonies from doctors advocating for the health benefits of the Safe Communities Act, such as increased reporting of domestic violence and decreased anxiety for undocumented immigrants and their relatives.
“There seems to be some fear that is Massachusetts were to be a sanctuary state, somehow that immigrants who broke the law … that this bill would prevent the police from arresting them, which nothing could be further from the truth,” he said.
The Next Step
In preparation for the December hearing date, activists and advocacy groups have ramped up their organizing efforts to prepare for the hearing.
One of the key groups behind this organizing is the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA), an activist group that has worked closely with Eldridge. MIRA is in the process of creating the Safe Communities Coalition, a group of organizations and individuals focused on promoting immigrant rights through pushing for the passage of the Safe Communities Act.
“Since 2016, we have built unprecedented support on Beacon Hill and across our Commonwealth, and ensured the adoption of pro-immigrant policies in dozens of local communities,” MIRA’s website reads. “Now it’s time to bring our work to fruition.”
With the Dec. 2 hearing date set and quickly approaching, MIRA expects to have a busy month of organizing inside and outside of the statehouse.
“We’re actively stepping up our advocacy and preparing for a big presence at the State House in December,” Marion Davis, the director of communications for MIRA, said in an email.
To Eldridge, the Safe Communities Act and protecting immigrant rights are at the core of Massachusetts’ values.
“If not for immigrants coming to Massachusetts … the state would be much less well off when you’re talking about job creation or you’re talking about cultural contribution,” Eldridge said. “We’re a diverse state. We’re a welcoming state that relies on the brain power and innovation that largely is dependent on people from all over the world coming to Massachusetts.”