BOSTON—Republican gubernatorial candidate Charles Baker labeled Gov. Deval Patrick "immensely soft" on crime and other social issues Thursday, citing his refusal to sign up for a federal program that automatically checks the immigration statuses of arrested people.
Independent candidate Timothy Cahill also complained about the delay, saying that with the state facing a $2 billion budget deficit, "we cannot afford to incur any more costs from criminal aliens."
The governor's re-election committee said Patrick, a Democrat, "supports the intent of the Secure Communities program."
Baker told reporters during a Statehouse news conference he would register the state for the program if he's elected governor in November. The state hasn't registered for more than a year, even though Boston has been participating in a pilot program for four years.
"Now we must give all local police departments the ability to implement it in their communities," said Cahill, the state's treasurer.
Baker went further, also pledging to restore an order signed by former Republican Gov. Mitt Romney -- but reversed by Patrick in 2007 -- allowing state police troopers to check the immigration statuses of people they encounter while doing their jobs.
"It's time to step up on this, and if I'm governor, I will," Baker said.
More broadly, Baker used the occasion to rebut one of the central themes of Patrick's recent attacks against him: the accusation Baker doesn't share his values because they have disagreements about education, health care and budget matters.
"I welcome a conversation about values with the governor," Baker told reporters.
The former Harvard Pilgrim Health Care president said parents he meet want safe streets and safe schools, and removing illegal immigrants who are criminal offenders is one logical way to help achieve that.
"I think the governor is immensely soft on these issues, and I think he's soft on these issues at the expense of a lot of the people of Massachusetts we should be trying to help every single day," Baker said.
In its statement, Patrick's campaign said: "Unlike Charlie Baker, Gov. Patrick has a proven record of working to improve public safety in our communities, including filing legislation to limit gun purchases and giving district attorneys more power to keep dangerous suspects off our streets."
The committee also complained "Baker and Cahill's budget proposals would gut funding for local aid and public safety, including police and firefighters. Gov. Patrick supports the intent of the Secure Communities program, which is to take violent criminals off our streets. He is working with public safety officials to evaluate the program to ensure that it will achieve this goal."
Separately, state Public Safety Secretary Mary Beth Heffernan promised a decision on Secure Communities "in due course."
"The administration enjoys a productive working relationship with (the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency) and shares the goal of ICE to ensure that serious and violent offenders who are here illegally are either incarcerated or deported," she said in a statement.
Under the Secure Communities program, arrested people's fingerprints are checked against FBI criminal records and Department of Homeland Security biometrics-based immigration records. Currently they are run through only state and FBI databases.
With the expanded checks, ICE can detain and possibly deport anyone who is wanted.
According to ICE, the program is already used in 32 other states and has helped round up more than 41,000 illegal immigrants with criminal backgrounds.
The program, though, has been criticized by Massachusetts immigrant advocates, who say it discourages immigrants from reporting crimes.
ICE spokesman Bruce Chadbourne said he didn't know why Massachusetts had yet to sign up after being invited to in September 2009.
After the delay was first reported by WFXT-TV in Boston, the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety said state officials were "engaged in ongoing conversations about Secure Communities with ICE."
Former U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan, who appeared with Baker, said law enforcement agencies should share all information they can in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"Far too many criminal aliens are allowed to victimize time and time again, notwithstanding the fact that law enforcement has a tool in the Immigration and Customs Enforcement database," Sullivan said.