Monday, December 04, 2006

Troopers can arrest illegal immigrants in Romney deal

Critics warn of profiling, police mistrust (waaaaaahhhhhh they're picking on us )

Governor Mitt Romney has reached an agreement with federal authorities that allows the Massachusetts State Police to arrest immigrants who are in the state illegally, his spokesman said.

Currently, state troopers have no power to detain people for violations of their immigration status alone, said the spokesman, Eric Fehrnstrom. If troopers stop people who they suspect are illegal immigrants, they can call a US Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Vermont to check on their status and detain them if federal officials request it, he said.

Under the deal, brokered after months of negotiations, troopers can detain people they determine are illegal immigrants during regular police duties, Fehrnstrom said. This authority will be given to two dozen or three dozen troopers who undergo 4 1/2 weeks of training in immigration laws, civil rights, and ways to avoid racial profiling, he said. The troopers will probably be members of special units that pursue violent fugitives or combat street gangs.

Ferhnstrom said the troopers would not go on patrols aimed at rounding up illegal immigrants. But they will be able to arrest, for example, a motorist they stop for a broken tail light if they determine the motorist has violated immigration law. Fehrnstrom, speaking Friday, said the pact would be announced publicly this week. He declined to provide more details yesterday.

Immigration advocates and civil libertarians blasted the agreement yesterday, saying it would lead to racial profiling and foster mistrust of the police in communities with large numbers of immigrants. The deal, reached in the final days of Romney's administration, also sets up a potential conflict with Governor-elect Deval L. Patrick, who has expressed strong opposition to granting the State Police such powers.

Through a spokesman, Patrick declined to say yesterday whether he might rescind the agreement when he takes office in January.

"This is another last-minute move by Governor Romney that is more about his presidential campaign than about sound public policy for the people of Massachusetts," said Richard Chacon, Patrick's spokesman. "The last election showed that people can tell the difference between the two."

During the campaign, Patrick dismissed as a political gimmick the idea of granting State Police such powers.

"I think the State Police has a lot to do already right now . . . and I think asking the State Police to take on a federal responsibility is not their job," Patrick said on WGBH-TV in June. In September, he told the Globe a "more constructive" approach would be to support federal legislation proposed by US senators John McCain and Edward M. Kennedy that would toughen border enforcement and allow some illegal immigrants to apply for legal status.

Romney's new agreement with Immigration and Customs Enforcement comes at a sensitive time for the governor, who has been sharpening his views on immigration as he prepares a probable run for the presidency in 2008. In September, Romney told Fox TV's "The O'Reilly Factor" that the border must be secured, and affirmed his support for the construction of a fence along the Mexican border.

Last week, however, the Globe reported that illegal immigrants had maintained the grounds around Romney's home in Belmont, as workers for a lawn service company Romney had employed. Romney said after the report that he had dealt only with the owner of the company, Ricardo Saenz, a legal immigrant from Colombia.

In approving the new powers for State Police troopers, Massachusetts joins a handful of states and localities that have entered into such pacts since they were first authorized in 1996. The list includes Florida, Alabama, and a few counties in California and North Carolina, where a limited number of officers have been trained to enforce immigration laws.

Ali Noorani , executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, yesterday called the pact a "gross mismanagement of public safety resources."

"Now, if you look or sound like an immigrant and are pulled over for any type of minor infraction, you're going to be profiled; there's no way around that," Noorani said. "This will have an incredibly chilling effect on the relationship between all law enforcement -- whether it's Boston police or State Police -- and the immigrant community. Most people don't see the difference between a state trooper and a local officer. A cop is a cop."

State Senator Jarrett T. Barrios , a Cambridge Democrat who is cochairman of the Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee, predicted the plan would add millions to the costs to train troopers and to jail detainees. He said the deal seemed calculated to help Romney's presidential ambitions.

In June, when Romney announced he was seeking the deal, he said it would give the State Police a way of "finding and detaining illegal aliens in the ordinary course of business."

Noorani made clear that Patrick would face pressure to rescind the pact. "Patrick was very strong and steadfast in his opposition to this," Noorani said. "We hope that one of his first actions as governor is to terminate this and restore the Commonwealth's public safety."


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