Pittsfield, MA – Introduced in 2008, the "Secure Communities" deportation program uses fingerprinting to check the immigration status of anyone charged with a crime by local law enforcement officials against databases maintained by the FBI and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE. Those who are found to be living in the country illegally are then put into immigration proceedings and deported.
Last week, Massachusetts became the third state, after Illinois and New York, to opt out of the program after state Secretary of Public Safety Mary Elizabeth Heffernan sent a letter to the homeland security officials outlining her and Governor Deval Patrick's concerns with the program.
In the letter dated June 3, Heffernan writes that both she and Patrick are "dubious" of the state taking on the "federal role of immigration enforcement," and "skeptical" of its affect on state residents, citing reports of racial profiling.
The decision not to implement the program is being heralded by immigration advocates. Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant, executive director of Berkshires-based Multicultural BRIDGE, which works to integrate immigrants into their communites, wrote a letter to Patrick in May describing her concerns with the program.
"Secure Communities is going to make everybody get scared again, because there's always a fear of change, and there's a fear of what resources are going to be lost or reallocated in the area."
"This is just saying, There's a threat. There are lots of criminals. We need to get them out of here.' The fear that's being instilled on both sides is really not beneficial to anyone and I feel like a lot of times these policies play on peoples' fear and anxiety and ignorance."
In her letter to Patrick, VanSant said the program promotes profiling and reinforces the irrational fear that immigrants are taking resources out of the community, when in fact, she says, they are adding to it.
"We only gain from this diverse group of people who support our area."
"There have been surges of people being racially profiled or mistreated, and all of the agencies work together and really talk to the different entities and work on that. If this gets implemented it sort of sets if all back that they were right to begin with; to be concerned about these people coming into our area, to feel like they're threatened in some way."
Hilary Greene, director of the Berkshire Immigrant Center, explained how recently released statistics on the program show it has not been effective in the deportation of criminals.
"They want to focus their resources on level one' offenders who are very serious criminals, those convicted of aggravated felonies. But that's not what's happening with the program."
The program was activated in the Boston area in November of 2008. ICE statistics show 137 convicted criminal aliens have been deported from the state since the program began. However, 180 of the 345 aliens deported, over 50 percent, had no criminal records. Here's Greene.
"Initially the concern was that there was no data. They weren't sure how implementing this was going to play out; would it catch the criminals (or) would it catch the hard working people whose only violations are being in the country? Now that they have collected these stories and collected this data, the concern about the program is definitely going to spread across the country."
While concern about the program has been voiced in several states, there is also concern that states do not have the right to simply opt out.
VanSant said those states that make it clear they do not wish to participate may end up in a battle against other elected officials who are politically invested in the program being successfully implemented.
"I think it's going to be a battle, I hope it's one that we win. I'm hoping that people who support Governor Patrick and his view are strong and that the communities and the local residents support him and continue to support him."
Greene agreed that the decisions made by both Patrick and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo weren't politically popular and said she expects debate on the merits of the program to continue across the country in the coming months.
"While I think it allays fears temporarily, it's still kind of on the table and there's definitely growing concern."