Federal officials next week will expand in Massachusetts a controversial program targeting illegal immigrants, particularly criminals, despite longstanding opposition from Governor Deval Patrick and advocates, according to local law enforcement officials who were notified Tuesday of the launch.
Federal officials had announced plans to launch the program- called Secure Communities - by the end of 2013, and the announcement that it would come on May 15 caught some officials by surprise. Patrick has objected to the program on grounds that it nets many immigrants with no criminal convictions.
Secure Communities allows federal immigration officials to tap into the longstanding tradition of information-sharing between local law enforcement and the FBI. Local police routinely send the fingerprints of people they arrest to the FBI for criminal background checks. Now, through Secure Communities, the FBI will share those fingerprints with immigration officials to identify illegal immigrants for deportation, especially criminals and repeat violators of federal immigration law.
The decision by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement to expand the program in Massachusetts follows intensive lobbying by politicians and local law enforcement. It also follows a string of highly publicized motor vehicle accidents involving illegal immigrants.
Last week, a Cape Cod florist died after allegedly being struck by an immigrant who officials said had overstayed her visa. On Friday, a Guatemalan man here illegally was arrested for allegedly driving drunk and trying to run down a State Police trooper.
In a pivotal case last August, Matthew Denice of Milford was struck and killed by an illegal immigrant, who was arrested and charged with drunken driving.
After Denice’s death, many politicians, both Democrats and Republicans, intensified calls on the Patrick administration to embrace Secure Communities.
“This isn’t just a big victory for law enforcement,’’ said Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson, who has lobbied the Patrick administration to embrace the program for months. “This is a big victory for the families who have lost loved ones.’’
US Immigration and Customs Enforcement - known as ICE - had hoped to have Secure Communities in half of Massachusetts counties by October 2010, but negotiations with the Patrick administration stalled.
Later that year, the administration said it was willing to enroll in the program. But amid public criticism, the governor changed his mind. Last year, joining the governors of Illinois and New York, Patrick said he favored deporting violent criminals but was concerned that Secure Communities would target immigrants never convicted of a crime.
Later federal officials said they would proceed, despite the objections.
Secure Communities, which started to expand nationwide in 2008, exists in almost every state, most recently expanding in New Hampshire this week. New York, Arkansas, and Wyoming are expected to fully activate along with Massachusetts next week, officials said.
The Boston Police Department, which piloted the program in 2006, is the only department in Massachusetts using the program now.
Yesterday, advocates expressed concern that immigrants fearful of deportation will refuse to turn to police for help - or to aid them in their investigations. Advocates have said that victims of domestic violence and other crimes are already afraid to turn to police for fear of deportation, even though police say they will not target crime victims.
Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, said her group was disappointed by the news.
“We’re concerned about how this is going to impact the relationship between immigrant and refugee communities and law enforcement,’’ she said.
Some immigrant advocates, including Millona, also say the program is deporting immigrants who have not been convicted of a crime - one of the main goals cited by supporters.
US immigration officials declined to comment on the launch.
But spokesman Ross Feinstein said immigration enforcement officials have improved the program to focus more intensively on serious criminals and other priorities, which also include immigrants who have reentered the country after having been deported and those with deportation orders.
“Over the past three years, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement has dramatically changed the way it conducts immigration enforcement,’’ he said in a statement. “Secure Communities has proven to be the single most valuable tool in allowing the agency to eliminate the ad hoc approach of the past and focus on criminal aliens and repeat immigration law violators.’’
But in Boston, only about half the people deported under the program have been convicted of a crime, far lower than the national average of almost 74 percent, according to the most recent statistics available from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“The numbers are alarming,’’ Millona said.
The governor’s office declined to comment on the launch yesterday, deferring instead to Public Safety Secretary Mary Beth Heffernan, who said in a statement that the governor’s office had expected the program to launch eventually and that the state had no control over it.
“As previously announced, the Department of Homeland Security notified us today that they plan to launch the federal Secure Communities program in Massachusetts, just as they have already done in other states,’’ Heffernan said. “Secure Communities is an information-sharing program between federal agencies that can only be implemented by the federal government.’’
On Tuesday, Senator Scott Brown, Worcester County Sheriff Lew Evangelidis, and others said their lobbying had paid off.
“The people of Massachusetts will finally have the protection they deserve from violent criminals who have entered our country illegally,’’ Brown said in a statement.
Evangelidis said he had been advocating for Secure Communities since Denice’s death last August. “This program will be a strong tool for law enforcement to identify and deport criminal illegal aliens who commit crimes in our community,’’ he said.