Just a month after the statewide launch of a federal program that shares the fingerprints of those arrested with immigration officials, gateway communities like Chelsea and Lawrence have experienced negative ripple effects fueled by panic and fear.
Some undocumented residents in immigrant communities hold the erroneous belief that the program allows law enforcement officials to demand identification and proof of citizenship under any circumstance. Some have reacted by rushing errands to return to the safety of their homes quickly, or refusing to drive to medical appointments for fear of being pulled over, said Yessenia Alfaro, director of organizing for Chelsea Collaborative, a community nonprofit.
The collaborative has received word that at least one Chelsea High School student was withdrawn from the school by her undocumented mother, who feared that she would be deported under the new program and that her daughter would be left behind to fend for herself, Alfaro said. Superintendent Mary Bourque said she cannot confirm that families are pulling students from school because of the program, but said that there is high turnover in the system.
“Kids go to school fearing that their parents could be taken away,” Alfaro said. “We . . . denounce this program that is terrorizing the families, that is jeopardizing the communication that we have with our local law enforcement, and undermining communities like ours that are so diverse.”
Others feeling an immediate impact include local business owners, who have reported to the collaborative that fewer customers are coming in, and those that do are not buying as much for fear of being out in public for too long, Alfaro said.
The controversial program, called Secure Communities, allows the FBI to share fingerprints of individuals who have been arrested by local police with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials.
The goal is to identify illegal immigrants for deportation who have criminal convictions, who have repeatedly violated federal immigration laws, or who are fugitives.
Although opposed by Governor Deval Patrick and other state officials, the program was piloted by the Boston Police Department in 2006. It began to expand to other states in 2008, becoming nationwide after Maine joined the program last month. In Massachusetts, it was launched on May 15.
Since 2008, Secure Communities has resulted in 179,000 deportations, 95 percent of which fell into Immigration and Customs Enforcement priorities, said agency spokesman Ross Feinstein in a statement. Immigration officials call Secure Communities, “the single most valuable tool” in allowing them to focus on criminals who are in the United States illegally, and credit the program for helping them, “remove more than 135,000 convicted criminal aliens, including more than 49,000 convicted of major violent offenses like murder, rape, and the sexual abuse of children.”
In fiscal 2011, the agency reported that it deported 216,698 criminal aliens, an 89 percent increase compared to fiscal 2008.
Although Chelsea is a so-called Sanctuary City, a resolution welcoming of all immigrants regardless of status, and denouncing federal immigration raids, Alfaro said the symbolic declaration has no impact on the enforcement of Secure Communities.
“Sanctuary Cities has no teeth when it comes to this federal program,” she said. “We have to be realistic. What we have before us is a federal program that is giving us problems. . . . We met with the chief of police after the program was implemented and, although he is not in favor of this program, he said he is mandated to honor the detainments. When people hear that, they’re a little bit disappointed.”
Chelsea Police Chief Brian Kyes said the department, which makes an average of 50 arrests per week, has received one detainer request from Immigration and Customs officials since the statewide launch of Secure Communities. He said the man was arrested for a serious violent crime and was here illegally. Kyes said he and his department have worked tirelessly to build trust in a community where many of its residents come from countries where police are feared.
“Under no circumstances do I want to diminish the level of trust we’ve built with the community. We’ve never violated that trust. I’m giving the community my word,” Kyes said.
“We’ll continue to treat people with respect and dignity. Any member of the public who wishes the services of the police department will not be affected by this program.”
Nelson Buttén, co-executive director at Lawrence CommunityWorks, said he participated in many of the information forums held locally prior to the statewide implementation of the program and heard people express concerns over potential racial profiling, and a reluctance from residents to report crimes or come forward as witnesses.
“The fact that it could make people not report domestic violence abuse, or work related abuses is alarming,” Buttén said. “People, they’re going to try to lay low and if that means you won’t report anything that can put them in jeopardy, then the consequence is that people are not going to report break-ins, cars being stolen. Even though that might not be part of Secure Communities protocol, they’re still not going to trust.”
Feinstein said Immigration and Customs Enforcement has developed a policy designed to protect witnesses, domestic violence victims, and victims of other violent crime.
The agency has also implemented a new civil rights complaint process, “to help guarantee that Secure Communities is operated in a manner that is fully consistent with all applicable civil rights and civil liberties laws and policies.” The agency also adopted a policy where minor traffic offenders who are arrested, but who have no criminal convictions, or fall under any other priority category, will have detainers become operative only upon conviction.
Last week, the Chelsea School Committee, led by at-large member Angel Meza, passed a resolution opposing the “unintended consequences” of Secure Communities.
“It’s really created confusion and fear in the community,” Meza said.
On the heels of the committee’s action, Alfaro said the collaborative plans to ask the City Council to craft and approve a city ordinance officially opposing Secure Communities.
The collaborative is also continuing to hold informational workshops for the community to educate them and allay fears.
The next one is July 23.
“If it were true that the only people they were deporting were criminals that are murderers or gang involved, then we would support it,” she said. “But we know it’s not functioning in that way. It’s a program that has many faults.”