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Praise, concern, uncertainty as Mass. reacts to immigration decision

The Supreme Court’s decision on Arizona’s immigration law today generated praise, concern and a measure of uncertainty in Massachusetts, one of many states where controversy erupted after Arizona passed the law in 2010.

Advocates for immigrants hailed the court’s decision to strike down several portions of the law, but expressed dismay that the court upheld its most controversial provision – having police check the immigration status of those they detain. Advocates said the ruling could encourage other police departments to question immigrants, even US citizens, and lead to racial profiling and harassment.

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“It really contaminates the whole anti-immigrant situation even more,” said Eva A. Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition in Boston. “It’s a provision that invites harassment.”

Supporters of the Arizona law said it is now more likely that other states will try to replicate the police checks. Many states are frustrated with Congress’s failure to resolve the illegal immigration issue and are acting on their own.

“I think we are going to see more states seek to enact laws like that locally because now they’ve gotten the green light on it,” said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors stricter controls on illegal immigration.

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After Arizona passed the law in 2010, the Boston City Council fired back with a resolution divesting funds from the state, a largely symbolic move, and Governor Deval Patrick blasted the law and vowed to veto any similar legislation in Massachusetts.

But the Massachusetts State House has continued to debate budget amendments that would limit illegal immigration and last month Massachusetts, after protracted debate, fully deployed Secure Communities, a federal system that automatically checks the fingerprints of everyone arrested by state and local police against immigration databases.

Though more passive than having police question illegal immigrants, Secure Communities is allowing federal officials to screen the immigration status of tens of thousands of people arrested here and nationwide.

Advocates for immigrants say they remain concerned about racial profiling by the police, despite the court ruling.

Last year, the Justice Department found systematic harassment of immigrants and US-born Latinos by police in East Haven, Conn., and in Arizona’s Maricopa County, led by Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Last month the department filed a federal lawsuit against Arpaio over the issue.

Peter Morales, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, based in Boston, and who was arrested in Arizona on the day the law took effect in 2010 for trying to block a sweep of immigrants, said he was happy that the court struck down several provisions of the Arizona law, but “deeply disappointed” that the “check your papers portion” stands.

“This is not in keeping with our country’s long tradition of striving for justice for all, nor does it reflect our collective moral obligation to protect and support vulnerable populations among us, including migrants and people of color,” said Morales, who lives in Salem, but was participating in demonstrations this weekend in Arizona.

Observers on both sides of the debate said states are likely to pursue their own immigration laws as long as Congress and the president fail to address the issue.

“We’re going to continue to have states and municipalities come up with what they believe is a solution to immigration,” said Felix Arroyo, a Boston city councilor who supported the Arizona boycott in 2010. “That’s going to keep happening as long as the federal government absolves itself of its responsibility to deal with immigration reform.”

Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson, who favors programs such as Secure Communities, said if Congress “rolled up its sleeves” and addressed the issue, the constant debate would end.

“What’s happening is because Congress hasn’t created a clear and concise policy on this,” he said. “This has gone on and on and on.”

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