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Modest immigration reforms in Mass. could send a powerful message

George Ingham, from Worcester, stood in the crowd before the start of a rally outside the State House on June 13.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Massachusetts sheriffs have plenty on their plates, and shouldn’t be spending their time on federal immigration. That would go from common sense to state law if the Legislature approves modest reforms.

The reforms, contained in a budget amendment that passed the Senate last month, do not make Massachusetts a “sanctuary state,” contrary to opponents’ characterization, and do not restrict communications between local law enforcement and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

The more substantial provision in the package would end so-called 287(g) agreements between local sheriffs and ICE, programs that deputize state and local law enforcement officers to enforce federal immigration laws. Under such partnerships, ICE pays for training, but all other costs — salaries, travel, overtime — are paid by taxpayers. In Massachusetts, three sheriff’s offices — Barnstable, Bristol, and Plymouth — have such a deal; the Department of Correction does too.


The bill would allow MADOC to keep its agreement, meaning the state prisons would continue notifying the federal government about the release date of undocumented immigrants convicted of crimes. That makes sense: Those individuals are criminals.

But not all detainees at jails have been convicted of anything, putting sheriffs in a different category. And unlike the correction department, sheriff’s offices interact more with the wider public. The potential chilling effect on the community that could occur if sheriffs are seen as appendages of ICE is more significant.

As a practical matter, states have little influence over the Trump administration’s immigration policies: That responsibility lies with US senators and representatives. But small steps are better than nothing — which is all we’re getting from Congress.