Trust Act bill would curtail police referrals in immigration cases
By Lisa Hagen, State House correspondent
BOSTON — Two years ago, as Edgar Ucelo left his Boston church he was pulled over by police and arrested for driving without a license. The judge planned to dismiss the case with a simple fine, but his case was turned over to federal immigration officials and he served six months in Plymouth Detention Center.
After fighting his case, Ucelo, who had no prior criminal record, was able to get immigration status and avoid deportation. But for many Massachusetts immigrants, Ucelo’s case is a rare example for those fearful that contact with police would result in deportation.
“We want it to be clear that officers are there to make sure we are all safe because I think we will all be more safe when my neighbor can call the police if someone is committing a crime,” said Jose Palma, a paralegal organizer of Centro Presente, a statewide Latin American immigrant organization.
Palma translated Ucelo’s testimony at Thursday’s Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security hearing, which also included testimony by Sen. James Eldridge, D-Acton, and a handful of state immigration groups of the Trust Act, legislation that would keep local law enforcement from sending cases to federal immigration officials.
Eldridge, co-sponsor of the bill, said that after speaking with immigrants from his district, he hopes the Trust Act can mend the trust of immigrants in local law enforcement.
“It is a waste of resources and breaks down the trust between the immigrant population and law enforcement,” Eldridge said of instances when local police referred cases to immigration officials.
Eldridge cited 2012 statistics that showed less than half of the state’s 768 immigrants that were deported through the Secure Communities program had a criminal record. This local-federal information-sharing program, once optional and now mandated by the federal government, permits the FBI to share fingerprints of individuals with a criminal background to immigration officials for deportation.
Rep. Denise Provost, D-Somerville, also testified in support of the Trust Act, noting one-third of her district is foreign born.
“(Secure Communities) is a highly discretionary and secretive program that destroys the trust between immigrants and local law enforcement,” Provost said.
Shannon Erwin, an attorney for Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, the largest immigrant rights group in New England, said the bill is consistent with federal law requirements, but still allows local police to do their jobs.
She emphasized that the local police are not the Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“We don’t want domestic-violence victims scared to pick up their phones, not knowing if it’s safe to call police or if they will be permanently separated from their children,” Erwin said.
Laura Rotolo, an attorney at ACLU of Massachusetts, said that 16 other states have passed similar bills to the Trust Act, noting that it does not interfere with federal government’s ability to deport people.
“The Trust Act focuses on voluntary cooperation, and sends a message to the community that you should feel free to call the police, especially if you have no criminal record,” she said.
Eldridge noted the Trust Act has received support from different churches throughout both his district and the state.
Jesse Jaeger, executive director of Unitarian Universalist Mass Action — a group that focuses on social justice in Massachusetts, said that almost 700 places of worship around the state, including Evangelicals, Catholics, Muslims, and Buddhists, support of the Trust Act.
“Migrants are important to the fabric that we live in and that fabric is torn when they fear calling police,” Jaeger said. “The commonwealth has a long and proud history of welcoming the stranger, and we should continue this proud history by passing the Trust Act.”