Sanctuary State Bill Draws Raucous Crowd On Beacon Hill

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BOSTON — The piston-hot topic of illegal immigration assumed center stage at the Massachusetts State House on Friday, as lawmakers heard an earful of testimony inside a jam-packed committee room about a proposal to enact so-called sanctuary city policies statewide.

The proposal, dubbed the Safe Communities Act and introduced by state Senator Jamie Eldridge (D-Acton), in his words, “would ensure that police are used to fight crime and not assist in federal immigration enforcement.”

“What we’re trying to oppose is having ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] getting engaged and holding people unfairly for deportation reasons that many of us feel are unreasonable, and that’s the separation we’re trying to create,” Eldridge told members of the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security.

In short, Eldridge’s bill, and identical legislation in the House filed by state Representative Juana Matias (D-Lawrence), would bar state and local law enforcement from assisting in ICE detainer requests. Friday’s hearing drew a massive audience, as attendees clamored for spaces to sit on the floor and crowded aisles and entryways in order to follow the proceedings. Committee Chairman Harold P. Naughton Jr. (D-Clinton) at one point threatened to remove several of the bill’s supporters who had taken to hissing while Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson, known for his law-and-order stances on immigration, delivered his testimony.

Earlier on Friday morning, several of the bill’s opponents disrupted a press conference featuring Eldridge, Matias, and Carol Rose, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. Carlos Hernandez, a legal immigrant who left the Dominican Republic for Massachusetts in 1969 and who is now running as a Republican to unseat Democratic U.S. Representative Seth Moulton, confronted Eldridge and others, asking, “how in the world is this law going to protect legal citizens and your voters, and legal permanent residents?”

“I’m an immigrant, and immigrants do not like the idea that they’ve invested lots of money to get to this country legally, and you basically want to protect the illegals,” Hernandez added.

Matias responded in part by saying that “the state has no obligation to enforce immigration policies in any way, shape or form.”

Then Dianna Ploss, a Gloucester Republican who made a name for herself last year when after years of voting Democrat elected to register Republican in order to back and volunteer for Donald Trump, countered that those whom Matias and others wanted to protect “committed a crime when they come in the country illegally.”

“You are using doublespeak,” Ploss added. “You are not protecting us, Mr. Eldridge, the taxpaying citizens of Massachusetts, and you should be ashamed of yourself.”

Dianna Ploss (Evan Lips — New Boston Post)

The hours of testimony that followed, while not as contentious and lacking the outbursts that defined the press conference, was just about as passionate.

State Representative Denise Provost (D-Somerville) at one point compared current immigration laws and subsequent deportations to the Fugitive Slave Act, the law born out of the Compromise of 1850 which held that escaped slaves were to be returned to their owners upon capture, even if they ventured into free states.

“I don’t think it’s a violation of federal law for our state to impose its own consequences,” she added.

Provost also compared ICE’s use of information sources such as the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles and various law enforcement databases to the “slave trackers” who worked on behalf of slave owners during the pre-Civil War era.

Meanwhile, Hodgson, the Bristol County sheriff, criticized the proposal for “putting the public at risk to satisfy a political agenda.”

“Let’s look at this bill for what it is — a politically motivated piece of legislation that will block partnerships with law enforcement agencies and make it easier for criminal illegal immigrants to return to our neighborhoods instead of their home countries,” he said. “And yes, I use the term ‘sanctuary state’ freely in this testimony, because that would be the result if this bill passes.”

Hodgson was later questioned by state Senator Sonia Chang Diaz, a Jamaica Plain Democrat, who appeared intent on forcing the Republican sheriff to make a distinction between civil and criminal violations. Backers of the bill have argued that those who overstay a visa or cross the border illegally are committing civil, and not criminal, infractions.

Chang Diaz bluntly asked Hodgson if he had ever committed a civil infraction.

“I’m sure I’ve gone over the speed limit in my lifetime, and your point?” Hodgson countered.

“You’re here making the point that we should not cherry-pick which laws we take seriously and which laws we enforce, so I’m just asking the question,” Chang-Diaz answered.

“Well if I’m caught speeding, there are consequences for it, I’m not suggesting that I should face less consequences than anyone else,” Hodgson said.

“I’m saying I don’t think this law is suggesting that either,” Chang-Diaz said.

State Representative Peter Durant (R-Spencer), a member of the committee, at one point asked Eldridge and Matias about the extent of cooperation between ICE and local law enforcement as stipulated under the proposal. Specifically, Durant proposed a scenario in which ICE requested to question an illegal alien in custody regarding a kidnapping or any other unsolved crime, in which their information could be useful.

“Maybe we would not do that here, from what I understand in this bill,” Durant added.

Eldridge explained that the legislation features a “category of crimes where police could continue to detain someone at ICE’s request,” but Durant pointed out that the category neglects to address requests for questioning as opposed to pending criminal charges.

Durant also asked Eldridge and Matias whether the United States should “be allowed to determine who comes into the country.”

The duo appeared unable to directly answer Durant’s question and instead highlighted the confusing state of federal immigration laws.

Eldridge, asked at one point to name a Massachusetts city or town that actively complies with ICE detainer requests, answered that Marlborough — a city inside his district — does not boast sanctuary city policies.

This is not the first time a wing of Beacon Hill has pushed to pass legislation that would add scenarios in which communications between local law enforcement and federal immigration officials would be barred. This latest measure, introduced as President Donald Trump’s administration has vowed to act on campaign promises to crack down on illegal immigration, comes on the heels of the Massachusetts House’s party-line vote last month to prohibit Massachusetts inmates from working on jobs out-of-state. The legislation came in response to Hodgson’s proposal to send Bristol County prisoners south to assist in the construction of Trump’s proposed border wall.

On Friday, Governor Charlie Baker publicly spoke out against the proposed Safe Communities Act.

“I oppose this bill that would prohibit law enforcement from enforcing bipartisan policies that have been in place for 10 years and prevented violent and dangerous convicted criminals from being released back onto our streets,” Baker said in a prepared statement. “This legislation would also prevent the Massachusetts State Police from upholding our policy to detain individuals for federal authorities that have been convicted of heinous crimes, like murder and rape, and weakens current public safety measures that are designed to keep us safer.  

“Our administration does not support making the commonwealth a sanctuary state and urges the Legislature to hold this bill in committee and reconsider ways to ensure Massachusetts remains a welcoming place while maintaining public safety.”

Seating was limited at Friday’s hearing (Evan Lips — New Boston Post)