The Safe Communities Act: Backed by the People but Not Elected State Officials This Year

A Report from Kathy Fitzgerald, RISE Member

Despite strong support from 185 community organizations and 95 legislative co-sponsors, the Safe Communities Act (SCA) has failed to advance in the MA legislative process and does not appear to be able to be passed this legislative session. The bill would have protected the civil rights, safety and well-being of all residents by keeping our local police from doing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents’ jobs for them and being used as the foot soldiers of Trump’s national deportation campaign.

Many RISE members were involved in advocating for the SCA. The excellent advocacy work that RISE carried out has been recognized and appreciated by many of our Safe Communities Coalition colleagues. Great work RISERS!

Following the failure of the SCA to advance as written, an effort arose to make certain changes to the bill that were promoted by two statewide associations of chiefs of police. While maintaining the many positive aspects of the SCA bill, the new proposals would have added exceptions and allowed local law enforcement officers to notify ICE when certain classes of immigrants are being held for non-immigration-related violations, and to detain these immigrants for up to 6 hours beyond the time they would normally be released, giving ICE time to arrest these persons for deportation purposes. The classes of people affected by the amendments are those persons arrested for “terrorist related activity” or having a prior conviction for certain criminal offenses (More information below).

On Friday 3/9/18, representatives of the RISE Immigrant Rights Working Group attended a meeting of Safe Communities Coalition members to learn about the proposed changes and to give feedback to the Coalition steering committee. At the meeting, numerous immigrant groups spoke strongly against proposed changes and urged the Coalition to not support any revised bill that has those changes. Other advocates continued to support moving the bill forward, even with the proposed changes. Legislative aides for the two original legislative sponsors of the bill spoke about the importance of having the support of law enforcement when proposing new laws that affect law enforcement.

Some of the pros and cons regarding supporting the revised bill included:

Pros:

  1. The bill retains its numerous positive sections and would protect some immigrants from the deportation pipeline.
  2. No similar bill will pass without police support or at least neutrality. The support of this bill by police chiefs is an important win for the positive provisions of this bill. Previously, the police chiefs supported a deeply flawed bill from Governor Baker on this issue.
  3. All legislation requires compromise. This bill is a start and, like California, we can improve it in subsequent years. California’s bill began with 800 crimes that excluded immigrants from protection. Now they have a good bill but it didn’t happen all at once.
  4. The Governor will certainly try to pass a much worse bill facilitating the use of local police in deportation efforts. We could end up with much worse.
  5. The effort to pass SCA has been historic and we will lose momentum if we do not keep pushing for passage.
  6. The bill has reporting requirements that would give us valuable information about the civil rights impact of these policies.

Cons:

  1. The amendments would place especially vulnerable communities at risk of losing equal access to due process and would codify into law a reduction of rights for certain vulnerable populations.
  2. No police would rush to grant bail to someone charged with terrorism anyways so that clause is superfluous. The changes would however incentivize increased surveillance of Muslim communities.
  3. Some changes are vaguely worded to cover large groups of immigrants that would have no way to challenge their inclusion in the group that would lose rights. For example, Latino youth have been added to gang databases based on spurious charges such as what they are seen wearing and/or whom they are seen conversing with. They have no due process opportunity to challenge the gang designation, yet inclusion in the list would open them to lose rights and have local law enforcement delay their release and contact ICE. Similarly, vague wording regarding “terrorist related activity”, not defined, would likely be interpreted broadly to include alleged false statements, including those alleged in the course of a fishing expedition and other broad definitions. Examples given included Muslims under suspicion for standing on a bridge at the wrong time and efforts to recruit informants.
  4. The changes in practice would disproportionally target racial and religious outgroups
  5. The changes erode existing protections under the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court “Lunn decision”.
  6. Our efforts might be better used in other ways, like grassroots organizing, than in pursuing this compromised legislation.

If you’d like to read more, here is a comparison of the original SCA bill and proposed amended bill http://www.miracoalition.org/images/Documents/SCA-original-vs-amended.pdf  The position of the immigrant groups opposed to supporting the amended bill (8 additional organizations have signed on since that document was created, including UU Mass Action, United for Justice with Peace, & Chelsea Collaborative, among others) influenced the whole coalition. If you’d like a copy, let us know.

The Steering Committee of the SC Coalition met on Friday March 9 to decide on how to move forward. and decided unanimously not that we cannot support the redrafted version of the bill.  The coalition goes on to state:

We don’t believe the original SCA has any chance of passing this year. But we can’t let the Legislature do nothing – lives are at stake.

The state budget process, which is now underway, offers an opportunity to pass one or more SCA provisions that have broad support within our coalition and beyond, such as:

  • Barring police from asking questions about immigration status;
  • Providing basic due process for people in state and local custody so that they know they can refuse an ICE interview and/or have their attorney present;
  • Prohibiting 287(g) agreements with ICE

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