State begins meetings on immigration policy

Federal plan says police must share data more widely

Yvette M. Tolson of Worcester spoke against the measure but supported the governor’s approach to dealing with it. Yvette M. Tolson of Worcester spoke against the measure but supported the governor’s approach to dealing with it. (Rose Lincoln for The Boston Globe)
By Matt Byrne
Globe Correspondent / February 27, 2011

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WORCESTER — A top state public safety official apologized to a crowd of 120 yesterday in a room at the public library for a failure by Governor Deval Patrick’s administration to properly publicize a controversial national immigration policy slated to take effect this year.

John Grossman, undersecretary for the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, delivered the apology at the first of 10 public-input meetings scheduled to discuss the Secure Communities program, a federal plan to take fingerprint identity information that local law enforcement already provides to the FBI and share it with immigration authorities.

“We blew it. I apologize.’’ Grossman said during his opening remarks.

“What we need is comprehensive immigration reform in this country,’’ he added. “The system is broken. I’m not sure Secure Communities is the problem. It’s the latest iteration of it.’’

Patrick declined to sign a 2009 memo from Immigration and Customs Enforcement that called for state leaders across the nation to “establish a solid foundation’’ for “bringing counties and police departments online.’’

“The governor has not signed anything yet,’’ Grossman said. “This [public discussion] process is going to go forward, and then he’ll make a decision.’’

He said the series of meetings to be held into the summer in communities including Springfield, New Bedford, and Lawrence were spurred by the administration’s failure to communicate effectively with the public about the details of the plan when federal officials sent Patrick the memo in 2009.

Grossman said it is unclear how much of the program will be optional for states, and whether the governor will have recourse should he resist the plan while immigration officials activate the system this year, as they plan to do.

State officials said in December that State Police would join Secure Communities this year, although it was unclear when. The program is currently in effect only in Boston, where it was launched as a pilot program in 2006.

The Obama administration plans to make the program mandatory nationwide by 2013.

In a phone interview Friday, Josiane Martinez, director of specialized media in Patrick’s office, said, “We’ve made clear that we will follow the law at all times, but we do want to collect the feedback.’’

The vast majority of audience comments protested the policy. Some who spoke said it will spur racial profiling by police and make discrimination by employers easier.

The policy has also angered local worker and immigrant rights groups, which also say it will foster discrimination and profiling.

“I think everybody in this room agrees, we don’t want any violent criminals in our communities,’’ said Antonio Massa of Millis, 33, who was the first in the audience to rise and speak out during more than an hour of public comment.

“The governor, if he is concerned, he can’t just say, ‘Oh it’s a federal policy.’ I want him to show leadership on this issue, and say until this program is working, we’re not going anywhere near this,’’ he said.

Laura Garza of East Boston, 52, a former candidate for vice president on the Socialist Workers Party ticket, said she believes programs such as Secure Communities target immigrant workers.

“The effect is that bosses use this to their advantage,’’ she said. “I believe that there is one action we can take: to send a message to the federal government that this is a bad policy, that we want nothing to do with it, and that we should get rid of it.’’

The audience, a diverse group including many Spanish-speakers, occasionally applauded after the most rousing comments. Some held signs, while others waited in a line more than a dozen deep for their turn to speak at the microphone.

Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant & Refuge Advocacy Coalition and a panelist, pointed to statistics from a pilot of the program in Boston that has been active since 2006 and said the efforts are not catching the right people.

In a recent reporting period, 38 percent of the deported individuals were convicted of nonviolent minor crimes, the least serious category of offenses the system tracks.

“This is an indication that the program is not doing what it’s supposed to be doing, which is going after people with criminal convictions,’’ Millona said.

In Boston, where more than 27 percent of people are born outside the United States, police have said hundreds of violent offenders have been turned over to immigration officials.

Last October, Boston Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis said he was confident that the more than 500 people netted by the database were involved in criminal activity, although federal records showed that only about half of them were picked up for violent offenses.

Davis’s information could not be independently verified because of privacy laws protecting the alleged offenders’ identities.

In other communities in Massachusetts, where about 12 percent of the population statewide is foreign-born, according to Census data, local police also have resisted the program.

Yvette M. Tolson, a descendent of the Pakachoag-Nipmuc praying Indians, came to the meeting with her husband, Eugene, and daughter, to speak against the measure, but supported Patrick’s approach to navigating it in having the meetings.

Patrick “is allowing us to work together, to allow us to have a consensus as a group,’’ Tolson said. “That’s the only way we can have peace.’’

The last meeting is scheduled on July 9 in Boston.

Matt Byrne can be reached at

The Patrick administration announced meetings in the following locales:

Mass Bay Community College, Framingham, March 12, 2-4 p.m.

Lawrence, location to be determined, March 31, 6-8 p.m.

Waltham, location to be determined, April 16, noon-2 p.m.

Chelsea, location to be determined, April 28, 6-8 p.m.

Brockton, location to be determined, May 12, noon-2 p.m.

Lowell, location to be determined, May 26, 6-8 p.m.

New Bedford, location to be determined, June 11, noon-2 p.m.

Springfield, location to be determined, June 30, 6-8 p.m.

Boston, location to be determined, July 9, noon-2 p.m.