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EDITORIAL

Boston shouldn’t make promises it won’t keep

People held signs onstage as Mayor Walsh hosted a rally supporting immigrant families to speak out against the Trump Administration's change to the "public charge" provision which would increase the number of government programs that count against an immigrant when applying for a visa or green card.
People held signs onstage as Mayor Walsh hosted a rally supporting immigrant families to speak out against the Trump Administration's change to the "public charge" provision which would increase the number of government programs that count against an immigrant when applying for a visa or green card. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)

The saga of Jose Martin Paz Flores, which has grown into a test of Boston’s commitment to its immigrant community, began when the Honduran man crossed the southern border illegally in 2000. He was apprehended by border authorities but then released and ordered to appear in immigration court at a date to be determined later. He claims he never received that court notice.

When he didn’t show up in court in 2002, he was automatically ordered deported by federal authorities. Meanwhile, Paz settled in Florida. Between 2004 and 2006, he ran into legal trouble there: Twice he was arrested for driving without a valid license, and twice he was charged with domestic violence. Those criminal charges were eventually dropped. Years later, Paz wound up in Boston employed as a construction worker under a different name.

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Around the same time, a trend swept cities in Massachusetts and in other liberal-leaning states: laws and ordinances purporting to limit the extent of local police cooperation with immigration authorities. In Boston, that push took the form of the Trust Act, signed by Mayor Walsh in 2014, which said police wouldn’t assist federal immigration officers. It was designed to send a message that immigrants could feel safe interacting with local police, whatever their immigration status.

What then happened to Paz raises some uncomfortable questions about whether rules like the Trust Act have accomplished their purpose — or whether its backers may have overpromised, leading immigrants to believe they had ironclad protections that the city doesn’t really provide. Going forward, Boston and other cities need to be a lot more careful about what they promise, or they risk undermining the very trust that sanctuary-city laws were supposed to build.

Paz fell from a ladder while working for Tara Construction in 2017, breaking his femur. But he soon learned he would not be receiving wage-loss compensation and medical coverage, as required by law, because the construction company had allowed its workers’ compensation insurance policy to lapse.

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Amid the fallout from the incident, the CEO of the company called a family member who worked at the Boston Police Department to clear up what he said were concerns about Paz’s identity. That’s where the protections the Trust Act were thought to include seem to have broken down. When the detective’s research showed Paz had an immigration hit, he contacted BPD’s liaison to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.

Many immigrants have assumed that the ordinance means that, in just such a scenario, the Boston police department would have declined to run Paz’s name past immigration authorities. That’s certainly what it was understood to mean when Walsh’s office said the act’s passage was a signal to immigrants that they “have a friend and an ally” in the mayor and the police.

Instead, BPD’s liaison with ICE told the detective that Paz had an outstanding deportation order from 2002. The department then allegedly helped arrange ICE’s arrest of Paz at Tara Construction; from the police department’s perspective, Paz’s criminal history in Florida provided the “nexus” to violent crime that justified its involvement. While the officer may have violated the department’s rule by doing his relative a favor (he is subject of an internal inquiry), he does not seem to have violated the Trust Act. The case came to light thanks to the reporting of WBUR; Paz was able to have his removal order rescinded in October of last year and now has work authorization.

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City Councilor Josh Zakim has called for a hearing in April to review whether the Trust Act needs to be updated “to further the purpose and spirit of the original legislation.” But Boston isn’t the only city grappling with the gap between rhetoric and reality in its sanctuary policies.

A recent AP story found that federal immigration officials are getting around sanctuary laws through informal communications with municipal law enforcement agents. The rules are also hard to enforce: In Boston, even if the officer had violated the Trust Act, there is no enforcement mechanism spelled out in the city’s ordinance.

Another complication is that sanctuary policies differ from city to city, and some (understandably) have public safety exceptions. Chelsea for instance, spells out clearly that its police will ignore immigration status “unless there exists. . . a potential threat to public safety and/or national security.” Chelsea spells out exactly which categories of crime fit those exceptions; other cities with sanctuary policies should do the same.

Christina Corbaci, Paz’s immigration attorney, said nothing in his background justified his treatment. “While it’s fair and correct for a state or local law enforcement authority to assess public safety concerns, my client’s criminal charges were dropped or dismissed more than 10 years ago, apart from a minor motor vehicle charge, which he resolved,” she said. “He’s been living an otherwise upstanding life caring for his wife and five children. We believe the criminal allegations are being used as a disingenuous excuse for the Boston Police Department’s actions.”

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Whatever he may have been accused of in Florida, Paz was mistreated in Massachusetts. The US Department of Labor is suing his former employer. But his case also shines a light on the way that sanctuary laws are not all that they seem. The original goal of those laws is important: Law-abiding immigrants need to know that they can report crimes to the police without fear of repercussion.

But if there’s a mismatch between words and actions, trust will turn into cynicism. In reviewing the rule, the city shouldn’t make promises that it’s not prepared to back up with action.