Globe Editorial

Police raise legitimate concerns on sharing immigration data

July 13, 2011

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SOME CITIES and states risk more by cooperating with the federal Secure Communities program than they gain. The US Department of Homeland Security needs to craft a better program if it hopes to recruit and retain local law enforcement in its effort to control illegal immigration.

Boston is the latest city to express distrust of the program that compares the fingerprints of arrestees with federal immigration databases. If a match is found, local authorities are asked to detain the suspect until Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents can determine if the person belongs in federal custody.

Boston helped launch Secure Communities in 2008. But Mayor Menino reversed course last week, expressing a lack of confidence in the “accuracy and transparency’’ of data produced by Homeland Security. Boston officials say they signed up for a program that identifies illegal immigrants who engage in violent crimes or serial offenses. They want nothing to do with saddling low-level, nonviolent offenders with federal sanctions, including deportation.

Commissioner Edward Davis went to Washington this week to ask for federal data on the outcome of illegal immigrants arrested in Boston - and for assurances that only violent offenders are targeted for harsh sanctions. But he came back with neither.

“I’m going to make them live up to their promises to us,’’ said Davis.

The needs of the city and the needs of Homeland Security are out of sync. Local police officers don’t want to be seen as de facto immigration officials. It frightens residents in some neighborhoods and makes it harder for police to get witnesses and crime victims to step forward. There is a wider concern as well. Menino is listening to civil-rights and immigration activists who make a strong case that Boston could lose its reputation as a welcoming and accessible city by participating in the federal program, which raises the specter of ethnic profiling or arrests based solely on an officer’s suspicion that someone might be in violation of immigration laws.

If ICE can’t provide compelling data showing that only violent offenders are receiving harsh sanctions, then there is no compelling reason for Boston officials to keep faith with Secure Communities. The program was supposed to be a partnership and an opportunity for local police to provide sensible feedback to federal agents. Instead, it is turning into an arm-twisting exercise by Homeland Security.