Vaughan: Police must share information on criminal immigrants

By Jessica M. Vaughan on October 7, 2010

MetroWest Daily News, October 7, 2010

Last year, a persistent detective in Weymouth finally put a stop to illegal alien drug dealer Pascual Bernabel-Soto's latest four-year crime spree in the Boston area. To do so, the detective had to sort through Bernabel's nine aliases, four Social Security numbers and four dates of birth. His investigation also turned up a prior conviction for attempted murder in Puerto Rico, and the fact that Bernabel had been deported from the country twice before. The detective could then alert ICE, the federal immigration law enforcement agency, which promptly deported Bernabel back to the Dominican Republic earlier this year, after he served his sentence.

It shouldn't be so hard for Massachusetts law enforcement officers to figure out when a criminal they have in custody is also a foreign national who is subject to removal from the country. Similarly, ICE shouldn't have to station agents in every jail to interview everyone arrested to see if they might be illegal aliens.

There is a better way. ICE is in the process of implementing a program to have the fingerprints of everyone who is booked into jail automatically screened against immigration databases as part of the existing routine criminal background check. Under the program, known as Secure Communities, the records of non-citizens who are arrested are forwarded to ICE, and the local ICE office decides if the offender should be removed from the country. Secure Communities has been activated in 32 states so far.

Boston Police Department was one of two law enforcement agencies chosen to participate in Secure Communities when it was tested as a pilot program, starting in 2006. It has been operating successfully in Boston ever since, according to ICE and Boston Police Chief Edward Davis. But Fox 25 investigative reporters learned recently that no other jurisdiction in Massachusetts can join Secure Communities. The Executive Office of Public Safety has refused to sign an agreement with ICE to open the door for other state law enforcement agencies.

Why would EOPS want to prevent local police and sheriffs from identifying criminal aliens? Considering the spate of horrific murders over the last several months, some of which involved illegal aliens, you would think that area leaders would be eager to adopt any program that can reduce the number of criminals living in our communities. After all, crime is not a job Americans won't do.

But Governor Patrick has stated repeatedly that he needs to study the program further before allowing other local law enforcement agencies to participate. His secretary of public safety and security, Mary Beth Heffernan, has expressed concern that Secure Communities might result in the arrest and removal of illegal aliens who have committed lesser offenses, such as burglary, drunk driving, domestic violence, or gang-related misdemeanors.

The administration's hesitation reflects the objections raised by a number of local advocacy groups, including Centro Presente, the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, and legal aid groups. These groups also claim that any cooperation between local police and ICE will cause immigrants to fear authorities and refrain from reporting crimes.

Maintaining community trust is certainly vital to effective policing. But the advocacy groups' claims are unfounded and misleading. Even worse, they are likely to stoke more fear in immigrant communities and sabotage the trust that has been built over the years. How can any member of the community trust its law enforcement officers if those officers are looking the other way at immigration law violations that are discovered because of involvement in other crimes?

The truth is that the only immigrants who should fear implementation of Secure Communities are the ones who are committing crimes, victimizing their neighbors, and degrading the quality of life for the other immigrants and citizens who live among them. Nationwide, the program has resulted in the identification of about 100,000 criminals with immigration violations. In Boston, about 180, or one-third of the 526 criminals identified turned out to have very serious criminal histories, such as murder, rape and armed robbery. About 100 of those flagged had lower level offenses, such as for drug or property crimes. About 250 of those flagged turned out to have no other local criminal convictions, but they were connected to crimes here or elsewhere, according to Chief Davis, or they had other serious immigration violations, such as ignoring deportation orders or returning after deportation, and are now again on the path to removal from the country.

The civil rights division of ICE has set up an independent process to receive complaints from those who believe they have experienced discrimination or abuse of authority under this program. To date, they have received no such complaints. Moreover there is no evidence, either in crime statistics or academic research, that validates the claim that robust immigration law enforcement programs have a chilling effect on crime reporting by immigrants. On the contrary, the jurisdictions that cooperate with ICE report the opposite - that immigrants learn from experience that victims and witnesses are not targets of immigration law enforcement, and that with their help ICE can better prosecute crimes like human trafficking, alien smuggling-related extortion, gang crime, and immigration fraud - where the victims are most likely to be immigrants too.

In their zeal to block Secure Communities, the advocacy groups are launching a series of "civil rights" seminars. These programs typically teach immigrants to impede ICE investigations by refusing to answer questions and by withholding identification, among other ill-advised suggestions. Unfortunately, these responses are likely to cast suspicion on immigrants where none existed before, or could be construed as obstruction of justice. They will not assist ICE in finding the real criminals.

A better use of their resources, and a better service to their constituents, would be for the advocacy groups to strike up a dialogue with ICE and local police about how Secure Communities really works and how any cases of discrimination will be dealt with if they should occur. In addition, they should help to educate new immigrants on how to report crimes, how to avoid becoming a victim, and how our system of justice works. For his part, Governor Patrick could more convincingly express his commitment to improving the lives of immigrants by signing the agreement with ICE to give Massachusetts law enforcement agencies access to the tools they need to protect immigrants and citizens alike.