In a bid to override a ruling issued by the state’s highest court earlier this week, Republican legislators have introduced a bill that would allow local law enforcement officials to arrest and detain individuals wanted solely for immigration violations.
The Supreme Judicial Court ruled Tuesday that local authorities are forbidden from enforcing federal immigration laws under state law, unless the state Legislature passes a new law specifically allowing officers to do so.
The bill presented by Representatives Jim Lyons of Andover and Marc Lombardo of Billerica seeks to do exactly that. The law would give officers the authority to arrest and hold both individuals targeted with an immigration detainer, as well as those officers believe have violated immigration laws based on their “personal observations and belief.”
“This bill aims to fix the travesty caused by the court’s ruling,” said Representative Shaunna O’Connell, a Republican from Taunton, at a press conference Wednesday. “It ties the hands of all law enforcement officers and makes Massachusetts a safe haven for illegal immigrants. It says, ‘If you come here illegally, you get a get out of jail free card.’ ”
Under the court’s ruling, immigrants arrested for crimes can still be detained. But if the individual would otherwise be freed, they cannot be held on an immigration detainer alone because state law does not allow for arrests on most civil matters.
Officials supporting the bill said the court’s ruling endangers public safety and exposes their constituents to dangers such as violent crimes and drug trafficking.
“My goodness, how many more families have to lose loved ones because of obstacles keeping law enforcement from working together?” Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson said.
A group of half a dozen protesters from Centro Presente, a Boston-based immigrant advocacy nonprofit, loudly and repeatedly interrupted the legislators speaking at the press conference Tuesday, asking questions and chanting, “Keep hate out of our state.”
Exchanges between Patricia Montes, executive director of Centro Presente, and the legislators at times grew heated, and three court officers appeared during the press conference as protesters continued to confront the lawmakers. But the representatives continued and invited Montes to ask questions at the end of the event.
In an interview, Montes, who is from Honduras, criticized the bill and said she would continue to “defend the basic human rights” of immigrants.
“We are here because we are tired of hearing the immigrant community characterized as a group of criminals,” she said. “That bill is hate and ignorance, and the message they are sending is that all immigrants are rapists and drug dealers.”
Amy Grunder, the director of legislative affairs for the nonprofit Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, said in a statement that the bill is “a solution in search of a problem,” and that the court’s decision in no way compromises public safety in the state.
Grunder also took issue with the clause in the bill that would allow law enforcement to use their personal observations and belief to arrest and detain, and said it could expose police departments to “huge liabilities” related to wrongful arrests and civil rights violations.
“We’re concerned that the language invites police to become untrained ICE agents, by explicitly giving them the right to arrest anyone they suspect of being undocumented,” she said. “This is . . . an invitation to racially profile anyone that police encounter, including victims, witnesses, and just random bystanders.”
The bill is supported by Representatives Peter Durant, Joseph McKenna, Kevin Kuros, and Kate Campanale, all of Worcester County, and Representatives David DeCoste and Geoff Diehl, both of Plymouth County.
But it stands little chance of passing in the Democrat-controlled Legislature.
Representative Byron Rushing of Boston, the assistant majority leader of the House, said Wednesday that he would respect his colleagues’ ability to introduce legislation and would listen to their arguments. But Rushing said he found the Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling to be “reasonable” and was opposed to adding any additional burden to local law enforcement officers.
“I don’t think we need to put any chilling effect on the way law enforcement officials wish to maintain their relationship with undocumented immigrants in their communities,” Rushing said. “They should not be forced to arrest or detain these individuals. There’s nothing stopping [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] from doing that.”