Gov Patrick opts against joining Secure Communities program

The Patrick administration has opted against signing onto the federal Secure Communities initiative, citing a “lack of clarity” and inconsistent implementation of a national program that uses locally gathered fingerprinting information to verify the immigration status of those arrested in Massachusetts.

“The Governor and I are dubious of the Commonwealth taking on the federal role of immigration enforcement. We are even more skeptical of the potential impact that Secure Communities could have on the residents of the Commonwealth,” Public Safety Secretary Mary Beth Heffernan wrote in a letter dated Friday to Acting Secure Communities Director Marc Rapp, informing the Department of Homeland Security that Massachusetts would not sign a memorandum of understanding for participation.

Since the start of the Secure Communities program in 2008, the information sharing capability between local law enforcement agencies and ICE has been expanded to 1,331 jurisdictions in 42 states. According to the Department of Homeland Security, 151,590 convicted criminal aliens have been booked into ICE custody through March 31, 2011, and 77,160 have been deported.

The decision by Patrick to reverse course and not sign the memo follows similar actions taken by New York and Illinois. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo suspended his state’s participation in the program on June 1, and Illinois terminated its involvement a month earlier.

After the state’s participation was an issue during his run for governor, Patrick announced last December that the state would sign onto the federal initiative that would share locally gathered fingerprinting information with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to verify the immigration status of those arrested in Massachusetts.

The governor and other public safety officials said they were led to believe by the Obama administration that participation would be mandatory by 2013, and hoped to help shape the implementation of the program.

House Minority Leader Brad Jones questioned the timing of the decision while public safety agencies were still focused on assessing the damage caused by three tornadoes last week in western Massachusetts.

“I think this is the governor coming down on the side of illegal immigration, and not willing to take the necessary steps,” Jones said, noting that those deported under Boston’s pilot program might not have been “serious criminals,” but were also not legal residents.

Republican candidate for governor Charles Baker and independent candidate Tim Cahill last year pressed Patrick to enlist Massachusetts in the federal program, promoting it as an essential public safety tool.

At a Baker campaign press conference, former U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan said, “The fact of the matter is there are criminal aliens allowed to walk the streets of the commonwealth and across our country because Massachusetts is refusing to enter into this memorandum of agreement.”

The governor’s announcement last year met with sharp resistance from the immigrant community, which staged several protests at the State House and warned that the program would lead to racial profiling and a frayed relationship between police officers and those in immigrant communities.

Patrick launched a series of hearing statewide to solicit input from the immigrant communities around the state.

“We were told the MOA was going to be mandatory so we planned to sign it to help shape its implementation in Massachusetts. There’s still a lack of clarity around the program. We’ve also seen the implementation to date, both locally and nationally, has not been consistent with the stated goals of the program,” according to administration official who did not want to be identified because Patrick plans to discuss the decision later Monday.

After the governor received a briefing by Heffernan last week about some of the implementation efforts to date and ongoing conversations with Department of Homeland Security, Patrick decided it was “time to refocus on our own law enforcement effort here in Massachusetts,” according the official.

The same official said Massachusetts would continue to share fingerprints with the F.B.I., and undocumented immigrants sentenced to prison in the state would continue to be turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement when their sentences are complete.

In the letter to the Department of Homeland Security, Heffernan wrote that since the start of Boston’s pilot participation in the Secure Communities program, only one in four of those individuals deported under the program had been convicted of a “serious crime,” and more than half of those deported were identified as “non-criminal.”

Heffernan said those statistics raised questions about the stated goal of Secure Communities to identify and remove aliens convicted of “serious criminal offenses.”

Heffernan cited concerns in the law enforcement community as well as some mayors that participation would deter the reporting of criminal activity, and “deteriorate relationships with communities that have been carefully cultivated with years of hard work.”

“We are reluctant to participate if the program is mandatory, and unwilling to participate if it is voluntary,” Heffernan said.

Jones suggested the decision by the governor had more to do with politics than public safety.

“I think this is the wrong decision for the Commonwealth, and as much a political decision trying to keep the coalition together for the elections next fall as it is for the safety of the people in the Commonwealth,” Jones told the News Service.