May 16, 2012
BOSTON — On May 15 in downtown Boston, protesters gathered outside the entrance to the building that houses the Massachusetts Democratic Party. They chanted things like “Today we march, tomorrow we vote!” and “Obama! Escucha! Estamos en la lucha!” — Spanish for “Obama! Listen! We are in the fight!”
The object of their wrath: the federal Secure Communities program, which launched in Massachusetts on Tuesday. Now, any time someone is arrested, their fingerprints will automatically be shared with federal immigration officials — and if that person is in the U.S. illegally and has a criminal record, they'll be deported.
The president overrules the governor
That's the idea, at least. But critics say that Secure Communities puts plenty of immigrants whose only crime is violating federal immigration law at risk of deportation, too.
Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick has been a vocal critic of Secure Communities. Last year, he told the federal government that Massachusetts wouldn’t participate.
But President Barack Obama and his administration say the program is an efficient, effective tool. They officially launched the program in Massachusetts over the governor’s opposition.
For people like Ada Fuentes of East Boston, that decision is a betrayal by the president.
“The Latino community is angry [at Obama],” said Fuentes. “Because he’s asking for them with one hand to vote for him, and with the other pushing them back to the border, back to the south.
Not just the worst of the worst?
Secure Communities is supposed to target illegal immigrants with criminal records, while leaving other illegal immigrants alone. But Fuentes says the system also punishes innocents — for example, domestic abuse victims who turn to law enforcement for help.
“The statistics are out there [pdf] saying that cases that are being reported to police officials about domestic abuse or any type of domestic problem — those people are also being detained and deported,” Fuentes said. “And I feel like that’s going to happen more and more."
Federal data suggests that there is, in fact, some imprecision. Of the 179,000 people deported under Secure Communities since the program began, just 135,000 were criminal illegal aliens.
For Fuentes, those numbers are deeply personal. Her mother fled Honduras with her when Fuentes was an infant and sought asylum in the U.S. When that request was denied, Fuentes joined the ranks of America’s undocumented immigrants.
“I’m afraid that there’s going to be further criminalization of my community,” she says. “I feel like this is not just or in any way going to protect anyone.
On the one hand …
Tuesday's protests attracted plenty of attention from passers-by downtown. But among the people we spoke with, reaction to the demonstrators' cause was mixed.
“I’m fine with it,” George Tecci of North Reading said of Secure Communities. “If you’ve done something, you’re guilty. If you’re not guilty, you don’t care."
He added, “The only thing that concerns me is something domestic. If someone is afraid, it should be excluded — domestic violence, or something like that."
Madelina Fernandes of Roxbury disagreed with the initiative. “I think everybody has the right to come to this country to work and support their kids,” she said. “Immigrants [are] the one that built this country.”
The demonstrators who protested Secure Communities agree. And this fall, they plan to bring their frustration to the ballot box.