Lawrence Harmon

ICE leaves police in the cold

Immigration and Customs Enforcement director John Morton Immigration and Customs Enforcement director John Morton (Getty Images)
By Lawrence Harmon
Globe Columnist / July 16, 2011

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BOSTONIANS SUFFER more aggravation from neighbors who steal their parking spots during winter storms than they do from illegal immigrants. In a border state like Arizona, the term “unlawful immigrant’’ might conjure up the image of a drug smuggler. Around here, it’s more likely to evoke the valedictorian of a local high school whose parents entered the country illegally when the kid was 3.

The Boston Police Department blundered in 2006 when it rushed to participate in the federal Secure Communities program, which matches the fingerprints of anyone arrested locally with those in federal immigration data banks. At the time, officials from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement promised that the matches would be used only to take action against illegal immigrants charged or convicted of serious crimes. Mayor Menino, therefore, blew his stack when the Globe published a story earlier this month showing that 183 of 352 immigrants deported from Boston since 2008 had no criminal records.

On Thursday, ICE director John Morton came to Boston to clear the air. But it’s still a little hazy, like nearly everything connected to federal policy on illegal immigration. Morton apologized for his predecessors who gave the false impression that only violent criminals faced deportation under the Secure Communities program. But he was adamant that the program could not be restricted solely to “serious offenders.’’

He said that 55 percent of the 352 illegal immigrants deported from Boston had criminal convictions. The remainder fell equally into the following three categories: those arrested after illegal reentry into the country; immigration fugitives who had ignored deportation orders; and people who had overstayed their visas.

Morton also said that miscommunication between ICE and local police left the false impression that the Secure Communities program is voluntary. It’s not. The target date for nationwide implementation is 2013, he said.

This isn’t going over well in cities where immigrants make up a significant percentage of workers, customers, classmates, and friends. Urban dwellers don’t want their police force to be perceived as de facto immigration agents. It undermines the image of successful cities as expansive and accessible. And police worry that crime victims and witnesses in immigrant neighborhoods won’t come forward for fear of deportation.

Boston Police commissioner Edward Davis said he tried to communicate his concerns to Morton on Thursday, but the ICE director was “cavalier’’ and “pretty dismissive.’’ Now Davis wants to break with Secure Communities. But he isn’t sure how that is even possible.

There is no obvious way short of refusing to send the fingerprints of people arrested in Boston to the FBI data bank. And no police commissioner in his right mind would risk overlooking a minor offender here who might be wanted for a heinous crime in another state. ICE has cornered the local police, who can’t prevent the FBI from forwarding the prints to the immigration data banks.

But it may not be as grim as it appears. There is recent evidence that ICE has heard the complaints of police and public officials, including Governor Patrick, who wants no part of detaining illegal immigrants for ICE’s administrative purposes. A recent ICE memorandum to its field office directors and special agents states that “it is against ICE policy to initiate removal proceedings against an individual known to be the immediate victim or witness to a crime.’’

Another ICE memo on “prosecutorial discretion’’ lists 19 factors to consider when deciding if deportation is warranted. The agency looks to be in no particular rush to kick out primary caretakers of sick relatives, pregnant or nursing moms, victims of domestic violence, people with serious health conditions, immediate relatives of US soldiers, minors, the elderly, and others who fall into sympathetic categories.

This is a good start. But ICE is still undermining the credibility of the police and making city officials look small-minded by implicating them in the deportation of illegal immigrants for administrative violations.

“What part of the word ‘illegal’ don’t you understand?’’ is the usual comeback to anyone who see shades of gray on the subject of illegal immigration. Bostonians could confront these hardliners with a question of their own: “What part of the word ‘communities’ don’t you understand?’’

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at