NEW BEDFORD - Rhode Island's decision to order State Police and other state agencies to help enforce federal immigration law is jarring border cities in Massachusetts, where illegal immigrants say they are now afraid to enter the Ocean State.
Almost two weeks after Republican Governor Donald Carcieri signed a controversial and sweeping executive order demanding that Rhode Island State Police, prisons, and other agencies identify illegal immigrants in their custody and turn them over to federal authorities for possible deportation, the effects are rippling across New Bedford and Fall River.
Many immigrants who live in Massachusetts routinely travel to Rhode Island for work, to visit family and for doctor's appointments, and to frequent nightclubs, parks, and the multitude of shops in Providence and Central Falls selling cheeses, breads, and pastries from their homelands.
Now immigrant families without legal papers say Rhode Island's move has prompted them to rethink their routines, fearful they will be arrested for a minor traffic violation and sent back to their native countries. Some who work in Rhode Island say they are even looking for jobs outside the state.
"People are terrified," said Anibal Lucas, director of the Maya K'iche Organization in New Bedford, a nonprofit that aids immigrants. "If they go to work, they don't know if they'll end up in jail at the end of the day. It's horrible."
The governor, in his second and final term, declined a request for comment. Over the past year his campaign against illegal immigration has intensified as the state faces a $550 million budget deficit, and he says, cannot afford services for people here illegally.
As part of his order, Carcieri instructed most state agencies to screen new employees through a federal database to make sure they are here legally.
Advocates say Rhode Island is creating an unfriendly climate for immigrants who are working to send money home and boosting Rhode Island's economy with their purchases. Providence's police chief criticized the order; religious leaders urged the governor to rescind it and asked congregations to pray about it during services this weekend. The governor's spokesman, Jeff Neal, said Carcieri used an executive order to push his agenda because several efforts to crack down on illegal immigration have failed to pass the state Legislature.
"Many people would believe that it sets out some fairly common sense procedures," Neal said. "Does anybody really think that if the State Police pull over a car for speeding and find out that the driver is an illegal immigrant that they should tell that person to have a good day?"
Carcieri's order marked a dramatic shift for a state bureaucracy that was long viewed as easier for immigrants to penetrate. For years, illegal immigrants who lived in Massachusetts got driver's licenses and registered their cars in Rhode Island, because Massachusetts had stricter rules, such as requiring a Social Security number to get a license.
David, 25, an illegal immigrant from Guatemala who lives in New Bedford, said he used to spend summer weekends in Providence with friends from his hometown of Zacualpa. They would gather in a city park to eat roasted meat and tortillas, celebrate birthdays, and keep one another company.
Not this summer.
"I'm not going," he said in an interview in New Bedford, refusing to give his last name because he is here illegally. "I am afraid the police will get me."
Henry, 28, a laborer who also lives in New Bedford, said he hasn't visited his sister in Providence for months as the illegal immigration debate heated up in that state. He used to bring his two children to visit her twice a week so their children could eat dinner and play.
"I would like to visit my family, but I can't," he said. "She asks me why and I tell her I can't come down there, taking that risk."
Immigrants say the state's push to more actively enforce immigration laws will make them less likely to report crimes, for fear of deportation.
Colonel Brendan P. Doherty, superintendent of the State Police, said his priority is finding criminals.
But he acknowledged that troopers could hand over any illegal immigrant to federal immigration authorities, whether they are traffic law violators or serious criminals.
In general, he said, troopers will not seek out illegal immigrants on their own.
"I'm not overzealous," he said. "I'm not here to do anything other than the right thing and to pursue criminal aliens and get the job done."
Troopers already communicate regularly with federal officials, he said, and the governor's order only makes that more official and clears the way for additional federal resources and training.
In the past month, all 215 State Police troopers received basic training in immigration law and enforcement from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. And police have asked to negotiate an agreement that would permit a small number of designated officers - possibly 10 troopers - to access federal immigration databases directly to investigate alleged criminals.
Massachusetts and other states also participate in federal programs that help enforce immigration law.
Last year Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts overturned former governor Mitt Romney's decision to allow State Police troopers to help enforce immigration law.
Massachusetts prisons alert federal officials of illegal immigrants in their custody.
Maria Sacchetti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.