SOMERVILLE — Mayor Joseph Curtatone called on state lawmakers and municipal leaders Wednesday to follow his lead and reject US immigration agents’ requests to hold immigrants for possible deportation under a federal program called Secure Communities.
“Like so many actions, Secure Communities began with the best of intentions,’’ Curtatone said at a City Hall press conference. “But in practice, this program just tears apart families who have committed no crime. It deports otherwise law-abiding individuals for offenses such as a broken tail light.’’
Curtatone said that on Thursday he will sign an executive order that will end the city’s two-year-long compliance with one of the key components of Secure Communities: the practice of holding arrested immigrants for up to 48 hours after they have posted bail or been ordered released, based solely on suspected immigration violations.
The practice existed for years, but became more common and more controversial in May 2012 when the federal government expanded Secure Communities from Boston to the rest of the state.
Since Secure Communities began in Somerville, Curtatone said, immigrants have been fearful to speak with police because they are afraid of being deported.
City officials said that in the last two or three years, there have been fewer than a dozen cases in which undocumented immigrants were held by police on civil immigration detainers, but that each instance had an outsized effect on the community.
Police Chief Charles J. Femino said that there have been serious criminal cases, such as a home invasion, in which police were not able to get information from victims and witnesses who were afraid to speak with officers because of their immigration status.
“In essence, what Secure Communities has done has built a wall between police and communities,’’ said Femino.
But critics say the decision by Somerville could allow undocumented immigrants who are criminals to slip through the cracks.
“The effect of this executive order will be to protect criminal aliens who would otherwise be sent home instead of back onto the streets of Somerville,” said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the national organization Center for Immigration Studies. “That’s bad for everyone who lives in Somerville and for all of us.”
On Monday, Nicolas Dutan Guaman, an Ecuadorian immigrant who was living in Massachusetts illegally, was sentenced in Worcester Superior Court to 12 to 14 years in state prison in the death of 23-year-old Matthew Denice. Guaman was found guilty of dragging Denice to death while Guaman was driving drunk. Guaman had previously been arrested on assault and battery charges in 2008.
Vaughan said Guaman was a perfect example of the type of person Secure Communities is targeting.
“If ICE had known about his arrest . . . they could have removed him before he had the opportunity to kill Matthew Denice,” she said.
Asked by reporters whether Secure Communities could have caught someone like Guaman, Curtatone called the case tragic but said Guaman had been prosecuted and had received a just punishment.
“I believe what the case points to is this: We have a broken system that everybody knows is broken,” Curtatone said. “But to state that blindly detaining people just based on their immigration status is going to prevent that crime, it is not the case.”
Since 2008, Curtatone said, crime in Somerville is down by one-third because police have worked to address the many factors that affect public safety, which, he said, includes ensuring that children grow up in intact families.
Curtatone said Somerville will still cooperate with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement when there is a criminal charge against an undocumented immigrant, but that the city will no longer hold people only on civil immigration detainers.
An undocumented immigrant who is arrested on charges such as drunken driving, Curtatone said, will still be prosecuted criminally, for drunken driving.
“If someone commits a crime, we’ll follow the same protocols we always do,” said Curtatone. “We will investigate, charge, prosecute, and seek punitive punishment as required under the law. If immigration comes to us to seek a criminal warrant on someone, we will work with them to execute that warrant and arrest people. We’re just not going to do it blindly.”
Curtatone said his decision will not have any impact on federal aid to the city.