SOMERVILLE, Mass.—Mayor Joe Curtatone took historic steps toward the protection of undocumented immigrants on when he signed an executive order to withdraw the city from Secure Communities, a program enacted by U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) two years ago to remove undocumented immigrants who pose a threat to public safety.
“[The program] is a broken system that everyone knows is broken and crying out for reform,” Curtatone said at a press conference at Somerville City Hall on Wednesday. “Crime in Somerville is down by one-third since 2008, not because we put more officers on the street or deported people with no criminal convictions. We make Somerville safer because we addressed every factor that affects public safety.”
The Secure Communities program allows ICE to ask local law enforcement to hold arrested immigrants for up to 48 hours after the person has posted bail or been ordered released by the courts. On the national level, half of the people deported through Secure Communities have no criminal convictions.
“For two years, we’ve been told that we don’t know what’s the best for our community and how to keep our community safe,” Curtatone said.
With the signing of the executive order, city facilities such as the police department can now refuse to give ICE access to individuals unless ICE agents have a criminal warrant or Somerville officials have a legitimate law enforcement purpose unrelated to enforcement of immigration laws.
“Like so many actions, Secure Communities began with the best intentions, but in practice, this program just tears apart families who have committed no crimes,” Curtatone said.
According to statistics provided by the City of Somerville, more than 1,000 deportations took place in Massachusetts alone since the program began two years ago, and ten Somerville residents have been detained. Nationally, 16 percent of deportees have no criminal records and ICE has admitted that about five percent of the people who were detained by ICE are U.S. citizens.
“The program pushes people into the background and into the shadows and discourages witnesses and victims from cooperating with police,” Curtatone said.
Curtatone’s action caused quite a bit of controversy within the community. Shortly after the press conference, some Somerville residents questioned the series of statistics about those deported and said they were suspicious about the accuracy of the survey.
“They are facts,” Curtatone responded. “The Secure Communities program, although well-intended, has some serious negative consequences. You have [U.S.] citizens detained and you are deporting people who are not dangerous to our community. But consequence can also be breaking up their families and making the community not safe.”
Connolly acknowledged that mistakes could happen during ICE detention, and that is the reason why five percent of the people held under detainers turned out to be U.S. citizens.
In response to questions of the impact of signing the executive order, both Curtatone and Connolly agreed that time will test the action.
California and Connecticut are the only two states in the country to have passed a statewide TRUST Act, a bill that limits the state’s cooperation with federal immigration authorities by only holding for ICE those immigrants with criminals records.
“You can see the support from the major cities around the country, like New York, Miami and New Orleans all took similar policies and justices,” Curtatone said.
He went on to say that he believes cities like Somerville will lead the rest of the country to take similar actions to protect undocumented immigrants.
Curtatone said that in areas where where TRUST Acts were passed and policies similar to that enacted in Somerville were taken, there’s been better cooperation with the police and law enforcement.
According to Laura Rotolo, an attorney from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Massachusetts, Somerville sends an important message to city residents by putting a limit on voluntary collaboration between the city and state police and ICE.
“Police will do their job and the immigration enforcement will do their job, so that people need not fear a simple 911 call or a traffic infraction will put them into a deportation pipeline,” she said.
According to Curtatone, the City’s withdrawal from Secure Communities does not mean lesser punishments for undocumented immigrants who commit crimes.
Recently, the state of Massachusetts convicted an undocumented immigrant named Nicholas Gauman of manslaughter after he struck and killing a Milford teenager with his truck in 2011. Guaman was drunk when operating his vehicle.
In addition to being Mayor of Somerville, Curtatone is also the city’s Chief Executive Officer, according to Connolly. Because of this, Curtatone is the only mayor in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts with the right to independently decide to withdraw a city from the program. As such, the decision making process preceding the withdrawal from Secure Communities did not involve votes of Somerville residents nor other city officials.
“What we’ll not do is simply arresting [sic] you because you have statuses on the undocumented system,” Curtatone said. “Deporting makes no sense and it’s never going to happen. We need to fix the system.”