Walsh is right about Secure Communities

Boston Mayor-elect Marty Walsh is skeptical about Secure Communities, a federal program that depends on local police departments to identify illegal immigrants. It’s a position that’s earning him much criticism, but he’s smart to worry: not only for the ethics of the matter, but for practical reasons too.

Secure Communities is the creation of the coolly named US Immigration and Customs Enforcement — ICE. Like many government programs with clever names that obfuscate their real purpose (think of the Patriot Act: a sweeping invasion of privacy clothed in the stars and stripes), Secure Communities isn’t intended to make cities and towns safer. Rather, as ICE itself acknowledges, it’s a “commonsense way to carry out ICE’s priorities.” Every time a cop detains or arrests someone, that person’s fingerprints are to be turned over to the feds. The heavy hand of Homeland Security then follows up.

ICE says it only goes after the seriously violent and claims much success, with over 166,000 individuals “removed” (in the agency’s parlance) through August of last year. But there is much doubt about who is being deported. Nationally about a quarter of those expelled under Secure Communities had no criminal record. In Massachusetts, according to a Globe analysis from earlier this year, fewer than half of those deported had criminal records. The rest were simply undocumented.


Of course, as the anti-immigrant crowd is quick to point out, illegals are criminals too. “What part of ‘illegal’ don’t you understand?” is a favored question, a somewhat nonsensical query. (I once went 30 miles in a 25 mph zone; I guess that makes me an “illegal.”) I’ll confess as well to a conflict of interest here. It turns out my forebears were immigrants to this country. I suppose it’s understandable that those of you whose ancestors were not immigrants might resent the newcomers’ presence on your shores. Not so the rest of us.

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I kid, of course. Except for Native Americans, everyone in the United States can trace his or her lineage back to an immigrant. The hypocrisy is breathtaking, but it’s justified by this distinction: “We” arrived here legally. “They” did not.

Perhaps, but it’s more the case that, having arrived, we’ve shut the door behind us. Once, the welcome mat was out. Today we’ve become increasingly xenophobic and we’ve embodied that xenophobia in our laws. It’s a bad, harsh, and immoral policy, one contrary to the nation’s ideals and one that Congress seems unable to resolve. It’s no wonder that local officials have little desire to enforce it.

That’s especially true in Boston, home to a large number of thriving immigrant communities. You can see that diversity in the city’s public schools, where almost half of all students speak a language other than English when at home. Indeed, as the school department notes, Cape Verdean Creole, Chinese, Haitian Creole, Portuguese, Somali, Spanish, and Vietnamese are so prevalent that school publications are usually translated into those languages. And while most families are properly documented, undoubtedly some are not. Massachusetts is home to some 160,000 illegal immigrants and — contrary to the focus of so much anti-immigrant ire — they’re not only of Hispanic origin. Indeed, the Irish Pastoral Center figures that there are about 10,000 undocumented Irish in Boston alone.

This reality puts the mayor, and especially the police, in an impossible position, with officialdom at odds with neighborhoods. Local policing is far different than the CSI-style crime-solving we see on TV. Rather, Boston relies on “community policing” — a strategy that’s been dramatically successful at lowering crime rates — where cops are more peacekeepers than crimefighters, with their mission being to stop crimes before they occur. It’s a strategy that works only when officers can earn the trust of residents, learning about the community and becoming part of it.


But under Secure Communities, the cops are in effect an arm of ICE, de facto immigration agents. Folks worry that if they talk to the police, for example, the family whose children are legal but mother is not will suddenly find itself busted up. Trust is gone, cooperation evaporates, and community policing falls apart. Ultimately, Secure Communities makes communities less secure — which is exactly why Walsh is right to want to pull out.

Tom Keane can be reached at tomkeane@tomkeane.com.