Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone will sign an executive order barring city police from holding people solely to allow federal agents to pick them up for suspected immigration violations.
Curtatone said in a phone interview Tuesday that the order is “what’s morally responsible to protect families in our community.” The mayor plans to sign the order Thursday.
Under terms of the directive, Curtatone said, police will only hold someone for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement if the agency has a criminal warrant or if there is a “legitimate law enforcement purpose,” beyond immigration status, for keeping a suspect in custody after bail is posted or a judge releases the person.
Federal law allows ICE to ask state and local police to hold immigrants who are arrested for an additional 48 hours after they have made bail, or have been ordered released, so that deportation officers can pick them up.
The practice has existed for years, but the issue became more urgent in May 2012 when ICE announced it would expand a program, called Secure Communities, from Boston to the rest of the state. Secure Communities allows ICE to screen the fingerprints of everyone arrested by state and local police to find immigrants, particularly criminals who have violated civil immigration laws.
Laura Rótolo, staff counsel with the ACLU of Massachusetts, helped Curtatone’s office craft the language of the order. She said it essentially means that if someone who posts bail “is a priority for ICE, they’ll have to figure out where you are to come get you.”
Somerville is believed to be the first community in Massachusetts to end the practice of holding immigrants for ICE solely to allow the agency to take custody of them for suspected immigration violations.
Patricia Montes, executive director of Centro Presente, a Somerville-based immigration advocacy group, said Curtatone’s order will “mitigate the impacts of programs like Secure Communities.”
Supporters and critics of the measure said dozens of similar initiatives have already taken effect across the country, including statewide policies in California and Connecticut.
Daniel Modricker, an ICE spokesman, did not respond directly to Curtatone’s executive order when asked for comment.
He said in a statement that ICE “will continue to work cooperatively with law-enforcement partners as the agency seeks to enforce its priorities through the identification and removal of convicted criminals and others who are public-safety threats.”
In December 2012, ICE put out guidelines to field offices for issuing detainer requests, stating that they should be used only for suspects who are subject to removal from the United States and who meet one or more of several criteria points.
Those categories include a prior felony conviction or pending felony charge, at least three prior misdemeanor convictions, or if the person presents “a significant risk to national security, border security, or public safety,” the memo stated.
Rótolo said Curtatone’s order will help residents of Somerville, which according to Census figures has a foreign-born population of roughly 25 percent. She said there is a perception that “any contact with police can lead to deportation,” making some immigrants reluctant to report crimes.
But Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Washington-based Federation for American Immigration Reform, which favors stricter limits on immigration, disputed that.
“Illegal immigrants know what’s going on here,” he said. “They know full well that police never ask about immigration status” when speaking with crime victims.
He said communities that do not comply with ICE detainer requests are jeopardizing public safety. “These are people who have been arrested for some reason,” Mehlman said. “They have been run through the system, ICE has jurisdiction, ICE has said, ‘Hey, we want this guy.’ And it really isn’t up to the Somerville Police Department to determine whether [ICE] can have them or not.”
Somerville Police Chief Charles J. Femino could not be reached for comment on Tuesday night.
Critics of the Secure Communities program in Massachusetts point to federal records showing that roughly half of the more than 1,200 people deported from the state through the initiative since 2008 have not had a criminal record.