Baker defers to local leaders in veto threat over immigration bills

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Written by Andy Metzger

STATE HOUSE — Ratcheting up opposition to legislation providing legal protection to people in the country illegally, Gov. Charlie Baker said he would veto such a bill should it reach his desk.

Baker made the comment in a radio interview last week responding to a question emailed by a listener. The governor’s opposition to a statewide policy regarding enforcement of federal immigration law comes as an immigrant advocacy groups plans a rally at the State House this week.

The threat to veto an entire piece of legislation is a departure from the governor’s general style of executive branch governance so far in his first year in office. Baker has acknowledged the variety of legislative ideas that shape major policy bills, and he has had success in seeing version of his own bills become law by trying to shape the debate rather than dictate it.

Baker was asked Thursday about his impression of a bill that would limit local police efforts in assisting the federal government to enforce immigration laws.

“I would oppose that and if that got to my desk, I’d veto it,” Baker told Boston Public Radio co-hosts Margery Eagan and Jim Braude.

There are two major bills that would provide protections to unauthorized immigrants, with one focusing on state agencies and services and the other adding restrictions on local law enforcement.

Known as the Trust Act, legislation filed by Sen. Jamie Eldridge (S 1258) and Rep. Evandro Carvalho (H 1228) would prevent local police from cooperating with federal immigration officials except in cases involving dangerous suspects and criminals.

“The people who are elected locally are most accountable to local communities and to local residents and they ought to make the call on this. We shouldn’t be — this is exactly the sort of thing we should not be doing at a statewide level,” Baker said.

Eldridge said under his bill, Immigration and Customs Enforcement would still be notified if an undocumented immigrant was arrested for a violent crime such as a shooting or domestic violence, and local police could hold individuals on an immigration detainer if they have a serious criminal record.

The bill would restrict local law enforcement from notifying immigration authorities if someone was arrested for a minor crime such as shoplifting, Eldridge said, and it would block local police from holding a non-criminal-offender on an immigration detainer. Eldridge said those restrictions would help build trust between the police and local immigrant communities — which may include those in the country illegally.

The Acton Democrat said he hopes to meet with Baker and his staff about the distinction between “sanctuary cities” – which he described as more of a “political statement” — and the changes his bill would make.

House Assistant Majority Leader Byron Rushing, a Boston Democrat, has proposed different legislation (H 125) that would make it state policy to assist all residents, including unauthorized immigrants, in obtaining lawful immigration status. Except where provided by law or a court decision, the bill would also prevent state agencies from inquiring into a person’s immigration status or assisting an investigation into a person’s immigration status.

“This bill does not make Massachusetts a sanctuary state,” Rushing told the News Service. He said, “This has nothing to do with any kind of criminal activity at all.”

Rushing’s bill would set into law an executive order that he said Gov. Michael Dukakis signed in 1985, which Gov. William Weld repealed in 1993 when he established the Office for Immigrants and Refugees.

State Police policy allows officers to investigate an individual’s immigration or travel status if it is related to an investigation into a violation of state or federal law – excluding federal immigration law, according to State Police spokesman David Procopio. State Police may also make such an inquiry if the person poses “a threat to public safety or order,” Procopio said quoting police policy.

The issue of sanctuary for immigrants in the country illegally became national news this year when Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, a felon and undocumented immigrant, allegedly murdered a woman in San Francisco after he was reportedly released from a local jail rather than being handed over to federal immigration authorities.

Eldridge attributed fault in that case to “incompetence by the police” and said under the Trust Act local authorities would cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the cases of violent offenders.

Boston was a pilot program for the federal Secure Communities program, which facilitates cooperation between federal immigration authorities and local police. The federal government later initiated the program across the state and last year the Obama administration announced plans to shift to a Priority Enforcement Program, which targets unauthorized immigrants convicted of crimes.

The Secure Communities program has targeted people without criminal records, Eldridge said.

“Sadly, I don’t think it’s much different,” said Eldridge. He said the home of an undocumented immigrant constituent in Acton was raided recently by federal officials and he said she is “going through the deportation process” because of a shoplifting violation that is more than two decades old.

Centro Presente plans to rally in front of the State House on Wednesday to advance its message that the federal Priority Enforcement Program is “the tool to continue criminalizing our communities.”

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh inherited that program and Baker said Walsh appreciates having options to deal with troublesome individuals.

“Boston, Mayor Walsh and the folks in Boston have said, ‘Look, we want to be welcoming. We want to be supportive. But we don’t want to take tools away from law enforcement for dealing with people who are here, who are here illegally, who are just causing trouble. We want to be able to use their immigration status as a vehicle to get them out of town,'” Baker said. He said, “So they do not support becoming a sanctuary city — that’s their call.”

The Walsh administration said the city considers itself a “welcoming city” rather than a “sanctuary city.”

“Under Mayor Walsh’s leadership, Boston has fostered an environment where all members of our community have opportunities to contribute and thrive,” City Hall said in a statement. “The Boston Police Department is committed to building trust within our communities because everyone who lives, works and visits our City deserves to feel safe.”

The two bills have different paths in the Legislature. Carvalho’s bill is before the Judiciary Committee, where House Chairman John Fernandes has opposed another effort backed by immigrant advocates: driver’s licenses for unauthorized immigrants.

Rushing’s bill had a hearing before the Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities. Eldridge’s bill is before the Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security.

Public Safety Committee Co-Chair Rep. Harold Naughton, a major in the U.S. Army Reserve, is currently deployed as a legal advisor and as a member of a task force providing security to bases in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. His unit is based in Qatar, according to an aide.

Eldridge said his bill cleared the Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security last session.

Copyright State House News Service