Boston police will no longer hold immigrants for possible deportation, unless a criminal warrant has been issued for the person’s arrest, under an ordinance unanimously passed by the City Council on Wednesday.
The Boston Trust Act, as the ordinance is called, marks a major shift for the city’s involvement in Secure Communities, a federal immigration program that it piloted in 2006. The goal of the program is to detect criminals who are here illegally and deport them, by allowing immigration officials to access the same fingerprints that state and local police routinely send to the FBI after they arrest someone for a crime.
With Wednesday’s vote, Boston joined Somerville and a wave of other municipalities across the nation that have restricted or opted out of the program.
Through a spokeswoman, Mayor Martin J. Walsh reiterated his support for the ordinance, which advocates say will improve relations between local law enforcement and immigrants wary of reporting crimes for fear of deportation. In June, Walsh told reporters he would sign the ordinance.
“Mayor Walsh supports the Trust Act to uphold the rights of immigrants, and to maintain public safety, family unity, and due process in our City,” said Kate Norton, the mayor’s spokeswoman.
Secure Communities allows US Immigration and Customs Enforcement to ask local authorities to hold immigrants for an additional 48 hours, even after they have made bail or been ordered released, so that its agents can investigate their immigration status.
Faced with criticism from immigrant groups who say many people without criminal records are being deported under the program, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh C. Johnson has promised to review the department’s enforcement policies.
At the City Council meeting Wednesday, the atmosphere in the gallery turned festive as it became clear the ordinance enjoyed strong support. Dozens of immigrant advocates present at the meeting clapped after the sponsor, Councilor Josh Zakim, and others spoke.
After Bill Linehan, the City Council’s president, gently reminded those in the gallery that clapping was not allowed, supporters snapped their fingers, waved their hands, and cheered as the 13 “yes” votes were tallied.
Regardless of immigration status, Zakim said, “victims of crimes and witnesses should feel safe in reporting them.”
Zakim cited federal court rulings, most recently in Oregon, that challenge the constitutionality of detaining immigrants. The Boston Trust Act, he said, would protect the city from civil lawsuits.
Laura Rotolo, with the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, was one of several lawyers to say at a hearing last month that Secure Communities violates the US Constitution.
Rotolo, who pushed for a similar measure that was adopted in Somerville, praised the Boston ordinance’s rejection of the federal program on Wednesday.
“It sends a message to the rest of the state that the program is unconstitutional and they should follow suit and do the same,” she said. “Cities are afraid of being sued.”
However, Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank, said the Boston Trust Act would allow released immigrants to commit crimes, and hinder coordination between local and federal authorities at a time when such collaboration is essential in identifying terrorist threats.
“I’d like to know what the City Council is planning to say to those victims who could have been spared,” Vaughan said.
According to an ICE official, Secure Communities makes it easier to track down illegal immigrants who have criminal backgrounds, and that the agency generally uses detainers for people arrested for serious crimes.
Federal statistics show that nearly half of the 757 deportees from Boston and Suffolk County from 2008 through March of this year had no criminal record.
Nationwide, 20 percent of deportees had no criminal record.
Daniel Modricker, an ICE spokesman, would not address the Boston ordinance specifically, but issued a statement about the role of Secure Communities.
“When law enforcement agencies remand criminals to ICE custody rather than releasing them into the community, it helps contribute to public safety and the safety of law enforcement,” Modricker said. “To further this shared goal, ICE anticipates that law enforcement agencies will comply with detainers.”
Several city councilors spoke in support of the ordinance at Wednesday’s hearing, stressing that it was a humane and pragmatic approach to policing in Boston.
Councilor Salvatore LaMattina, whose district includes East Boston, home to a large immigrant population, praised the measure.
“People will not live in fear in my neighborhood when we pass this,” he said. “Right now, they’re in fear.”
The Boston Trust Act requires the police commissioner to submit a report to city officials with statistics on the number of detainment orders requested by ICE and honored by police, as well as the costs incurred for holding immigrants on the detainers.
At the hearing last month, Boston police Deputy Superintendent Norma Ayala-Leong said the department does not currently have statistics on detainers.
Gloribell Mota, an organizer with Neighbors United for a Better East Boston, said the group has many clients who had not reported sexual assaults to police because they were afraid of deportation. With the ordinance in effect, the key will now be to publicize it among the immigrant community to encourage cooperation with police, she said.
“Anyone, regardless of immigration status, should be able to call 911,” Mota said.
This story has been edited to include a statement from ICE.
Oliver Ortega can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ByOliverOrtega.