Immigration issues may get shelved

Proposal to house children from across the border clouds bills before lawmakers

With controversy swirling around plans to bring unaccompanied immigrant children to the state, Massachusetts lawmakers appear increasingly unlikely to act on other immigration measures before they depart Beacon Hill this week.

Activists and some legislators said the arrival of thousands of children at the nation’s border and Governor Deval Patrick’s proposal to shelter some of them has hardened views on immigration, dimming prospects for legislation that would limit local law enforcement’s role in the deportation of adult immigrants.


“The idea of many more immigrants coming across the border has inflamed the passions of a lot of individuals,” said state Representative Denise Provost, a Somerville Democrat who supports the antideportation bill, known as the Trust Act. “I’ve heard concerns [from some constituents].”

The Trust Act was approved by the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security in March, but has languished since then.

State Senator James Eldridge of Acton, the act’s sponsor, said he does not expect the bill to advance out of the Senate Ways and Means Committee on Thursday, scheduled to be the last day of the Legislature's session. A House version was sent for further evaluation last month, effectively killing its chances for this session.

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

The Trust Act would authorize police to detain only adult immigrants who have criminal convictions and who have served at least five years in prison. Others would be released.


Similar laws exist in California and Connecticut. In Boston, Mayor Martin J. Walsh has expressed support for a local version of the Trust Act. Somerville passed its own version earlier this year.

Patricia Montes, executive director of the advocacy group Centro Presente, said the Trust Act is the linchpin of efforts to expand immigrant rights, and the current impasse is “deeply disappointing.”

“If this doesn't pass, basically officials are telling us that there’s no interest in pro-immigrant legislation,” Montes said. “And this in a state that supposedly celebrates diversity.”

The latest failure arrives after the Joint Committee on Transportation, dominated by Democrats, rejected a bill in June that would have granted driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants, something many states have already implemented.

Shannon Erwin, state policy director for the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, an umbrella group of immigrant organizations, said the border crisis will likely intensify opposition against the Trust Act and similar legislation.

“It doesn’t make it easier going forward, for the rest of the year,” Erwin said. “It’s been a real uphill battle to pass any positive immigration bill.”

Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the conservative-leaning Center for Immigration Studies, said passing the Trust Act will be difficult at a time when the federal government seems unable to secure the border.

“The more our immigration policy seems to be out of control — the border crisis is one example — the less favorable people are to policies like the Trust Act,” Vaughan said.

But Eldridge said he wasn’t convinced the governor’s offer to house immigrant children affected the bill’s chances during this session, adding that immigration bills are particularly difficult to pass because of the issue’s divisiveness.

“Unfortunately, it takes a number of years and sessions, and a bill concerning immigration is a bigger challenge in Massachusetts,” Eldridge said.

Bristol County Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson said the Trust Act would limit communication between local and federal authorities at a time when such contact can prevent terrorism threats and the proliferation of gangs.

“We have to share as much possible information as we have about any risks to our community,” he said.

Well over 50,000 unaccompanied minors — mainly from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras — have been taken into custody after illegally crossing the border since last fall. The federal government expects to receive at least 60,000 such children this year, compared with fewer than 14,000 in 2012.

A 2008 law designed to curb sex trafficking prohibits deporting children without a court hearing, unless they are from Canada or Mexico. Federal officials have sought cooperation from states in housing the thousands of minors as they await their day in court.

A recent Boston Globe poll found that opinion in Massachusetts on immigration issues is in line with US results, despite the state’s liberal reputation. Massachusetts residents were split on the plans to house the children, with 50 percent in favor and 43 percent opposed — a difference within the margin of error. In Bourne, home to one of the proposed sites to shelter the unaccompanied minors, officials and residents have voiced resolute opposition to the measure.

Oliver Ortega can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @ByOliverOrtega.
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