A controversial ballot effort to allow local police to detain certain undocumented immigrants wanted for deportation cleared a key legal hurdle Wednesday, ratcheting up the debate about immigration policy on Beacon Hill.
The decision by Attorney General Maura Healey’s office to allow the measure to move toward the 2020 ballot came as advocates packed the State House to push separate legislation that would clear a path for undocumented immigrants to obtain a Massachusetts driver’s license.
The dual proposals — and their disparate goals — quickly energized the discussion around the state’s role in federal immigration law, with conservative law enforcement officials urging tighter immigration rules on one side, and liberal lawmakers and advocates fighting for expanded rights for undocumented residents on another.
The controversial ballot proposal, which still requires tens of thousands of signatures before it could go to voters, mirrors aspects of a bill that Governor Charlie Baker filed in 2017, after the Supreme Judicial Court determined that Massachusetts law enforcement officers do not have the authority under state law to comply with requests from Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hold immigrants who are wanted for deportation.
Honoring a so-called detainer, the court ruled, would constitute an arrest — but immigration violations are considered civil offenses.
Baker’s bill never passed the Democratic-controlled Legislature amid heavy opposition from immigrant advocacy groups, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, and some top Democrats.
But the ballot petition — it’s dubbed a law “to prevent Massachusetts from becoming a sanctuary state” by its authors — would effectively bypass the Legislature.
And should the measure ultimately qualify for the ballot, its proponents and critics both indicated Wednesday that they are prepared to launch campaigns in an effort to sway voters.
The proposal would give authority to state and local law enforcement officers to detain immigrants who would otherwise be freed from state custody for up to 12 hours if they are “subject to deportation” and considered a threat to public safety. That includes if they are suspected of terrorism or have past convictions for certain felonies or misdemeanors, such as domestic violence, burglary, or drug dealing.
Holding anyone beyond 12 hours would then require approval from a state judge.
Michael O’Keefe — the district attorney for the Cape and Islands, who filed the petition with several county sheriffs, Republican lawmakers, and others — said that the proposal is a “further reinforcement” of Baker’s bill.
“And also perhaps a more expeditious way to get the law on the books,” he said.
“I have to believe that the vast majority of the citizens of the Commonwealth believe that those people should be able to be picked up and processed by immigration enforcement personnel.”
Baker said Wednesday that he had not read the petition, but reiterated that he stands behind the thrust of his legislation.
“I do believe it would make the Commonwealth safer if law enforcement had the ability to communicate with their colleagues at the federal level for certain classes of detainees,” he said. “If that’s the nature of what you’re talking about, then that’s something we would support.”
The petition was among a dozen proposals Healey’s office certified Wednesday, including bids to implement ranked-choice voting in Massachusetts elections and to change the state Constitution to allow those incarcerated for a felony conviction to vote.
In each case, supporters must file 80,239 signatures of registered voters by Dec. 4. Once that hurdle is cleared — and should the Legislature not enact the proposal by May 6 — proponents then must gather another 13,374 signatures by July 1.
Healey’s office said that certification is based on a legal review, and does not suggest any support for or opposition to the petition.
In fact Healey, a Democrat, was among those who praised the high court’s 2017 decision on immigration, calling it a “rejection of anti-immigrant policies.”
The immigration petition’s opponents indicated Wednesday that they’re ready to mobilize against it. The ACLU, along with the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute and the law firm Foley Hoag LLP, had filed a legal memo urging Healey’s office to deny the petition.
“Make no mistake: This proposed ballot initiative would impact people’s liberty,” Carol Rose, executive director of the state ACLU, said in a statement. “The full power of the ACLU will continue to fight to ensure that all immigrants are treated with justice and humanity.”
Eva A. Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, said the state’s high court has already ruled on handling detainers, and that “if it comes on the ballot, we’ll work on the ‘no’ campaign.”
Both the coalition and the state ACLU were among those simultaneously pushing legislation on Wednesday that would allow the state’s undocumented immigrants — a population estimated to number 185,000 — a path to getting a standard state driver’s license.
Supporters rallied on Beacon Hill before filling a State House auditorium for a hearing on the bill, arguing that many immigrants are already on the state’s roads, despite the fear that a traffic stop could lead to deportation amid the Trump administration’s efforts to target them.
The uncertainty created by Trump’s policies makes the timing ripe to expand who can get a license, one of the bill’s sponsors said.
“Given the climate at the national level, it certainly strengthens our argument for this,” said state Senator Brendan P. Crighton, one of the bill’s sponsors.
He noted that 14 states, as well as the District of Columbia, have passed similar measures.
“And the sky hasn’t fallen,” he said.
The legislation, however, has failed to gain traction in the past, and whether it can garner support now, including in the more moderate House, is unclear.
Baker, a Republican, opposes it. “My problem with giving licenses to people who are undocumented is just that — there is no documentation to back up the fact that they are who they say they are,” he said Wednesday.
A top law enforcement group expressed similar concerns.
Chelsea Police Chief Brian Kyes, who heads the state’s Major City Chiefs of Police Association, said that he hoped the bill would mandate a passport to verify an applicant’s identity.
State Senator James B. Eldridge, an Acton Democrat who has long advocated for better protection for undocumented immigrants, said he’s hopeful there will be movement in the Legislature.
“I think there’s strong commitment on the Senate side for taking action,” he said. “And I’ve certainly heard commentary from House members that they want to do something on immigration.”
But he said he’ll do whatever he can to beat back the potential ballot question.
“If anything, this petition shows that there’s a difference of opinion between right-wing conservatives and the rest of the state, and the overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature should take action to protect immigrants,” he said.
Matt Stout can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.