Mass. police to join immigration checks program

BOSTON—The Massachusetts State Police will participate in a federal program that automatically checks the immigration status of those who are arrested, the state's top state public safety official announced Friday.

In a statement, Public Safety Secretary Mary Beth Heffernan said the state will formally join a program called Secure Communities after months of deliberating by state officials.

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement program allows arrestees' fingerprint information to be checked against FBI criminal history records and biometrics-based immigration records kept by the Department of Homeland Security. But the program has drawn fire from some Massachusetts-based immigrant advocacy groups who say it discourages legal and illegal immigrants from cooperating with police.

Heffernan said state officials concluded that they have to participate.

"It has become clear now that this program is going to be mandatory for all communities in the near future," Heffernan said in a statement. "With that knowledge we will sign the (agreement) with ICE."

Patricia Montes, executive director of Centro Presente, a Somerville-based immigrant advocacy group, condemned Friday's announcement and said the program is really aimed at targeting immigrants, not fighting violent crime.

"It is sad and it is very lamentable that in this state, that is considered one of the most progressive in the country, that the Patrick administration would sign onto something as odious as the ironically named Secure Communities program," Montes said. "This program is not making our communities more secure. This program is terrorizing our communities and it's not a good decision."

The decision was also denounced by the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition and the ACLU of Massachusetts over concerns that ICE would keep data even in a wrongful arrest.

"Gov. Patrick has previously shown great sensitivity to the concerns expressed by the state's immigrant and refugee communities," said Eva Millona, executive director of the coalition. "That is why we were shocked and deeply disappointed that he would reverse course without any apparent need."

But the move was hailed by Attorney General Martha Coakley, who said she supported Gov. Deval Patrick's administration's decision.

"It is a positive step for public safety to ensure that we are properly identifying people who already have been arrested and sharing that information with federal authorities for appropriate action," Coakley said.

State Sen. Steven Baddour, D-Methuen, a proponent of immigration restrictions, also praised Heffernan's decision as a way to battle state spending on illegal immigration.

"At a time when resources continue to be scarce, our first and foremost priority must be to spend our limited funds on taxpaying citizens and their families," he said in a statement.

The agency wants to have the program in every jail by 2013. ICE said hundreds of jurisdictions around the country have implemented the program so far, including Boston police.

In recent months, Centro Presente and the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts have offered training to immigrants on how to respond to police departments that participate in the federal program. Forums include information on how to respond to immigration status requests and how to react to police searches.

Montes said Centro Presente will continue its media campaign about the program in immigrant communities.

Since ICE began the program in October 2008, federal officials say immigration officers have deported more than 50,600 immigrants convicted of various crimes.