Opinion

opinion | Marcela García

Immigrants need licenses, not detention

Immigration reform is dead — or maybe not, depending on whom you talk to.

Yet, in a refreshing response to Washington political sclerosis, some Massachusetts lawmakers are following the lead of a handful of states that have recently implemented measures to fill the void left by the ghost of immigration reform.

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Two very different bills are in play at the State House, but both draw on the fundamental, yet controversial, premise that undocumented immigrants are a fact of life and require sensible policies, rather than purely exclusionary or hostile treatment. This is the same notion that animated the recent nationwide immigration debate — the growing awareness that longstanding denial about undocumented immigrants is getting the country nowhere.

One widely supported Massachusetts reform is a rebuttal to the Secure Communities program, which has the unintended consequence of making many communities less secure. Secure Communities gives federal immigration officials the authority to insinuate themselves into local police enforcement. This is the program mostly responsible for the highest rate of deportations ever in the country — 400,000 a year. Since Massachusetts officially implemented it last May, and immigrant communities became aware that the local police at times have become an extension of federal enforcement, Secure Communities has cast a pall in community policing.

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Immigrants’ fear of the police breeds less cooperation and less public safety. A recent national report confirms Latino immigrants are less likely to contact police because of their involvement in immigration enforcement: More than 4 in 10 Latinos are less likely to report a crime.

At its worst, local and state law enforcement officers’ assistance with federal immigration enforcement has resulted in the unlawful seizure and detention of Massachusetts residents without charges or probable cause to detain them.

State Senator Jamie Eldridge and Representative Carl Sciortino have proposed the Massachusetts Trust Act. It would release local law enforcement from routinely detaining and reporting to federal officials the many undocumented residents whom they stumble upon, such as a Mexican woman named Guadalupe who was shopping on Black Friday at the Holyoke Mall last year. She tried to pay for her merchandise with a debit card. When she could not produce an ID, security was called, and she was charged with shoplifting. The charges were quickly dropped by the judge, but police refused to release her to comply with Immigration and Customs Enforcement rules. She was deported four weeks later, leaving her daughter and her life behind.

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In essence, the bill would liberate local police from being an arm of ICE and follows similar legislation in several states, including California and Connecticut. It has the support of Boston Mayor-elect Marty Walsh, Governor Patrick, and an assortment of other mayors. Walsh even said he wants Boston to pull out of the Secure Communities program, if he can get around it.

Safety is the goal of another bill aimed to address a hazardous situation: undocumented immigrants without drivers licenses and thus without insurance. When an accident occurs with an undocumented immigrant, the other driver must pick up the pieces.

No one knows this better than Carly McClain, a community organizer at the New Lynn Coalition. On her way to visit the Science Museum with her husband and son, a driver ran a stop sign and rammed into her car. When police arrived, says McClain, “the officer was asking for license and registration and he didn’t have that, he [the officer] was trying to tell him, ‘you should go to the hospital,’ and the guy didn’t understand him. He was really terrified.”

After the officer wrote him a ticket, the driver fled on foot. It took much aggravation and three months for McClain to work things out with her insurance company.

The Safe Driving Bill would remove immigration status as a barrier for a license or learner’s permit, and generate a special type of driver’s license and, along with it, the requirement to have insurance. The bill, sponsored by state Senator Patricia Jehlen and Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier, is awaiting a hearing in the joint Transportation Committee.

McClain sees no reason why Massachusetts shouldn’t join the 12 states that require all drivers, including the undocumented, to be properly trained, licensed, and insured. “Maybe if this man had been able to go to the RMV and take a permit test so that he knew the rules of the road . . . he might not have hit me, and he might not have been hurt,” she says. “And all of this might not have happened.”

Marcela García is a special correspondent at Telemundo Boston and a contributor to the Boston Business Journal.
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