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Legislative committee backs deportation limit

Seeking to curb deportations in Massachusetts, a legislative committee on Wednesday approved a bill that would bar state and local law enforcement from holding all but the most serious criminals so that federal immigration agents can take them into custody.

The Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security voted to advance the legislation known as the Trust Act by Wednesday’s legislative deadline, handing a small but important victory to advocates for immigrants. The bill would impose the first restrictions on federal immigration officials since they dramatically expanded the controversial Secure Communities program in Massachusetts two years ago over the objections of Governor Deval Patrick.

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“It is truly a great victory,” said the bill’s sponsor, state Senator James Eldridge, Democrat of Acton. “It’s a recognition that if our federal government is not going to take action on immigration reform, then at the state level we need to take action.”

Though still evolving, the bill sets the stage for a new clash over illegal immigration in a state that has remained divided in recent years over hot-button issues such as in-state tuition or driver’s licenses for unauthorized immigrants. (A committee mulling driver’s licenses extended its voting deadline Wednesday to May 15.)

Under federal law, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, can ask state and local police to hold immigrants for an additional 48 hours after they have made bail, or been ordered released, so that deportation officers can pick them up.

The proposed Trust Act would authorize police to honor the holds only for adult immigrants with criminal convictions who have served at least five years in prison. Others would be released.

The proposed bill follows similar laws passed last year in California and Connecticut under the same name. Advocates say cities such as Newark refuse to hold immigrants at all.

Critics say the legislation violates the spirit of cooperation among law enforcement agencies and could lead to the release of serious criminals who have not served the required five years in prison.

“The only people that this benefits are the criminals who are going to be able to return to the streets,” said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based organization that favors tougher controls on immigration. “That’s a very high standard for someone to have served five years.”

She said an immigrant released for a lesser offense in Providence went on to rape a woman in 2008. And in Brockton, an Ecuadoran immigrant released after multiple arrests killed a woman and her son in 2011.

But Laura Rotolo, staff counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said nothing in the bill prevents ICE agents from picking up immigrants on their own. And now that Secure Communities is activated statewide, she said, federal immigration agents already know where they are.

She also said that no immigrant would be released without first getting permission from a judge or magistrate, who would grant the detainee bail based on their dangerousness and flight risks.

“This is just an extra hold for ICE’s purpose,” she said. “It’s a hold so that ICE can come and get them.”

ICE spokesman Daniel Modricker said the agency does not comment on pending legislation, and the governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

The Massachusetts Republican Party also declined to comment, but some members worry that the measure may undermine the Secure Communities program supported by leading GOP contender for governor, Charlie Baker.

“Charlie supports the Obama administration’s Secure Communities program and believes law enforcement officials should have the tools and information necessary to keep our communities safe,” spokesman Tim Buckley said in an e-mail.

Though immigration holds have existed for years, the issue gathered new urgency in May 2012 when ICE announced it would expand the Secure Communities program from Boston to the rest of the state, dramatically increasing its reach in the Commonwealth.

The computer-based program allows ICE to automatically screen the fingerprints of everyone arrested by state and local police to find immigrants, particularly criminals who have violated civil immigration laws.

Critics say more than half of those deported had never been convicted of a crime, and many were stopped for traffic violations or other minor offenses.

Since the expansion, the ratio has remained steady. As of November, federal records show, 51 percent of the 1,244 people deported from Massachusetts through the program since 2008 have not had a criminal record.

State Senator James Timilty, cochairman of the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security, said no one opposed the bill at a public hearing this year. But many families spoke in favor of it, saying police had turned over their loved ones to ICE for deportation for minor violations such as speeding.

Others said the cooperation between police and federal immigration agents made immigrants afraid to call the police.

“I just thought that was a tragic occurrence in many respects, and maybe a very expensive response to a minor infraction,” Timilty said in a phone interview. “They made some very compelling testimony at the hearing.”

Timilty, a Democrat from Walpole, said the bill passed 8-0; eight additional committee members either abstained or did not vote. The panel has one vacancy.

Maria Sacchetti can be reached at msacchetti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @mariasacchetti.
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