Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone made a significant statement this week when he signed an executive order limiting the city’s participation in Secure Communities, the controversial federal immigration program in which local police assist in holding immigrants for possible deportation. Essentially, Secure Communities was making Somerville less secure — by eroding the much-valued trust between the Police Department and members of the community, while breaking up families and deporting people with no criminal convictions.
Since its official launch, Secure Communities — which was piloted in Boston — has been besieged by controversy. The program allows officers for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, to ask local police officers to place a hold on an arrested immigrant for up to 48 hours after the person has posted bail or been ordered released by the courts. Curtatone’s executive order, drafted with the help of the ACLU, stipulates that unless immigration officers have a criminal warrant or local police officers have a “legitimate law enforcement purpose unrelated to enforcement of immigration laws,” the individual won’t be placed in a detainer for ICE — that is, a hold that would eventually lead to deportation.
No one can argue against the underlying premise of Secure Communities: the identification and removal of convicted criminals and others who threaten public safety. But in reality, the execution of Secure Communities has not been quite so focused, as Curtatone clearly understands. Any immigrant interacting with police could potentially be deported. A traffic stop could lead to the detention and eventual deportation of immigrants who have no convictions at all and pose no threats to their communities. Half of the people deported through Secure Communities nationwide had no criminal convictions. (Remember: Being in the United States without legal status is a civil offense, nor a criminal one. While crossing the border illegally is a crime, overstaying your visa, as many undocumented people have, is a civil offense.)
In essence, Secure Communities has become a mass deportation tool; indeed, paperwork snafus related to the program have resulted in the temporary detention even of some naturalized US citizens. The program is so contentious that even the Secretary of Homeland Security has hinted at potential changes. In an interview with PBS just last week, Secretary Jeh Johnson said the agency “is taking a fresh look at the Secure Communities program.”
Curtatone’s executive order sends a loud message, one that values immigrants’ contributions to the city while attempting to alleviate the negative effects of Secure Communities’ far-reaching arm. Patricia Montes, who leads Centro Presente, a Somerville-based immigrant advocacy nonprofit, told me three other communities in Massachusetts are considering adopting executive orders similar to Somerville’s. (She declined to identify them but said they will soon come forward.) It’s a step that more than 60 municipalities and a handful of states all over the country have already taken in the absence of much-needed immigration reform. California’s recent Trust Act modifies that state’s policies on immigration holds. Connecticut passed similar legislation as well. Our own lawmakers on Beacon Hill are considering the Massachusetts Trust Act, which is pretty much a statewide version of Curtatone’s executive order. Let’s hope our legislators do the right thing and follow Curtatone’s lead.