BOSTON — State lawmakers heard testimony at a packed hearing on Beacon Hill on Friday on a proposal that would make Massachusetts a so-called sanctuary state.
The Safe Communities Act would limit interaction between local law enforcement agencies and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Among other things, the bill would prevent law enforcement and court personnel from asking a person about their immigration status and set limits for when they could notify the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement of someone’s impending release from custody.
It would also end the so-called “287g agreements” that allow local jails and prisons to house federal immigration detainees.
The Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition says the goal of the bill is to “restore community trust” at a time when some immigrants “avoid calling 911, going to the hospital, or seeking police or court protection” out of fear they might be reported to ICE.
Brian Rosa, a 13-year-old living in Allston with his parents and younger sister, said he lives in fear of losing his family. Sony Fernandez, an immigrant from Brazil living in Fall River, said she has witnessed the disruption deportation causes among immigrant communities in the state.
“I wake up in the morning thinking, what will it be if my parents aren’t here?” Rosa told the Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security at the hearing Friday. “I go to school and come back thinking, what will happen if my parents are not home?”
Rosa and Fernandez joined many supporters of a bill (H 3573/S 1401) as the committee heard hours of testimony on the bil.
“America was founded by immigrants seeking freedom and protection,” Fernandez said. “This legislation is addressing an ongoing problem in all these communities.”
The hearing came just ahead of a Feb. 5 deadline for most joint committees to make recommendations on bills filed for consideration during the two-year session that began last January.
Rep. Ruth Balser, a co-sponsor of the bill, said although the state legislature cannot fix national immigration policy, there are steps the state can take to make Massachusetts a “safe and welcoming place” for immigrants.
U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley and Boston Mayor Martin Walsh threw their support behind the bill in written statements released Friday.
“The fear and anxiety of our undocumented neighbors is palpable in our communities. And it is our job as elected officials to represent our constituents and their interests,” Pressley wrote.
The Massachusetts Republican Party wrote Thursday that the bill would “protect those who have already broken the law by crossing our borders illegally.” Bristol County Sheriff Tom Hodgson, another opponent of the bill, said communication and collaboration between local, state, and federal law enforcement needs to improve, a lesson he said he learned while working in New York City after the attacks on the World Trade Center.
“When you begin to break apart our ability to communicate with our partners, we suddenly are not able to get the information that we otherwise could have to keep somebody from either being released out of jail or from having somebody in the community not be arrested that then is going to go out and victimize more people,” he told the News Service.
Republican Gov. Charlie Baker has said he’s opposed to a statewide sanctuary law and would likely veto the measure if it passed the legislature.
This session’s legislation states that the Department of Correction, state police, sheriff’s departments, and city or town police departments cannot perform the functions of an immigration officer. U.S. Department of Homeland Security, state, and local enforcement agencies can conduct interviews, including informal questioning, for immigration purposes only if the individual provides “informed consent” in writing.
In one tense exchange following testimony from Rep. Liz Miranda, Balser and Eldridge, Rep. Peter Durant began questioning a story Eldrige had told where the Acton senator visited constituents whose father was deported following a traffic stop. The individual had overstayed his travel visa.
“In my opinion just being caught for speeding should not be grounds for deportation,” Eldridge said to Durant.
Durant pointedly asked Eldridge whether he and the other co-sponsors of the legislation were in favor of open borders.
Balser, defending the bill, said the question wasn’t relevant to the bill. Durant continued pressing the sponsors on what activity would allow for deportation.
“Nothing in this bill limits police from responding to criminal activity,” Balser said. “Nothing in this bill prevents federal and state and local officials from communicating with each other about criminal activity. That’s not what this bill does.”
This story includes information from State House News Service and The Associated Press.