BOSTON – Supporters of a bill that would limit interactions between local law enforcement and federal immigration officials are hoping that changes to the legislation will help advance this year’s version.
The legislation (H 2418 / S 1579), dubbed the “Safe Communities Act” by supporters, restricts local and state law enforcement officials from asking about a person’s immigration status and limits their cooperation with federal immigration officials.
It’s a bill that has drawn fierce testimony over the years and stalled out in the Legislature multiple times. Filed by Rep. Ruth Balser, Rep. Liz Miranda, and Sen. Jamie Eldridge, the bill was heard by the Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee Wednesday and drew a lengthy list of speakers.
During the hearing, Eldridge said the proposal is a “commonsense bill that seeks to treat all immigrants and really all residents with dignity, provides clear bright lines for law enforcement, and improves public safety for all residents.”
“As it has become clear this year that the United States Congress and the Biden administration are not going to be successful in passing federal immigration reform, I hope it has become clear for Massachusetts state legislators that the time to act is now and we cannot wait any longer to pass legislation to protect our commonwealth’s most vulnerable immigrants,” the Acton Democrat said.
Supporters of the bill have found little success over the past two sessions.
The proposal remained in both branches’ Ways and Means committees as the 2019-2020 session ended, and in 2018, a Senate-backed budget amendment with similar language did not survive conference committee talks.
This time around, lead sponsors of the bill are hoping changes made in collaboration with local police chiefs will help propel the legislation forward. Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan said the legislation is “something we need for public safety.”
“My job as district attorney is to protect the public safety of every person in Middlesex County. And to do that, I need people to have trust in their police departments, to be willing to come forward,” she said. “…And this bill gives us an opportunity to do that. This is critical for public safety.”
The bill has encountered a cascade of criticism and pushback, including from Gov. Charlie Baker, who said last year he would veto the bill if it reaches his desk.
The last time the bill had an in-person hearing in January 2020, supporters and opponents flocked to the State House’s Gardner Auditorium where tense exchanges were common between lawmakers, advocates, and opponents.
Officials from the Massachusetts Republican Party and Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson argued at last year’s hearing that the bill would create additional challenges and barriers for local, state, and federal agencies to cooperate. That outcome, they said, could endanger public safety.
This year’s bill doesn’t stray far from the previous text. It would prevent the Department of Correction, state police, city or town police departments, and sheriff departments from performing duties of an immigration officer.
Interviews and informal questioning for immigration purposes between an individual and Homeland Security officials or state and local enforcement agencies could only occur if the person provides “informed consent” in writing, under the bill.
The legislation also bars state or local police officers from initiating communications with the Department of Homeland Security about a person’s pending or imminent release from state or local custody unless a criminal conviction sentence is ending.
Balser said one of the changes incorporated into this year’s iteration came as a result of concerns raised by law enforcement officials like District Attorney Ryan. As the legislation was originally written, Balser said, the text “made it sound like a law enforcement officer couldn’t talk to ICE at all, couldn’t answer questions if ICE called.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” the Newton Democrat said. “We’re not going to ask people on our police force to lie. What this was really about was that local law enforcement won’t initiate contact. So if you’re on a traffic stop, someone went through a red light, you’re not going to say ‘and by the way, can you show me your immigration papers.'”
Balser said the other significant change deals with enforcement of the proposed law. Last session’s version directed complaints to the Attorney General’s office while this year’s text sends complaints and subsequent investigations to the Executive Office of Public Safety.
Heading into Wednesday’s committee hearing, the House version of the bill had garnered 87 co-sponsors including Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee Co-Chair Rep. Carlos Gonzales and Assistant Majority Leader Rep. Michael Moran. The Senate version has 37 co-sponsors including Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee Vice-Chair Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz.
Supporters have previously cited the effects of the pandemic as a reason to move the proposal forward, arguing that the bill offered safeguards for undocumented immigrants who seek out tests or vaccinations.
Dr. David Rosman, a physician at Mass General Hospital and immediate past president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, said the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on vulnerable communities.
“If the immigrant community is fearful to be tested or treated for COVID because of fear that their name gets written down somewhere, fear of deportation, we know that that harms not only them in their community, but all of us,” he said. “Communicable disease does not care where you’re from.”