BOSTON – After two consecutive lawmaking sessions without success, legislators and immigration reform activists are hopeful that a national reckoning on racial justice can provide momentum to a bill limiting cooperation between local police and federal immigration enforcement.
A group of representatives and senators filed a proposal Tuesday (SD 532 / HD 1165) that would place a legal barrier between the federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency and Massachusetts police and court officials.
The bill sputtered out each of the previous sessions without a vote, but sponsors said Tuesday that they believe its support continues to grow amid a changing political climate and with the Biden administration targeting action to reshape the country’s immigration system.
Massive protests against police violence and racial inequalities last year prompted action on police reform, while the raging COVID-19 pandemic has heightened awareness about the disproportionate obstacles that people of color face with many public systems.
Rep. Liz Miranda, one of the bill’s lead sponsors, said that “all the dominoes are in order” to address the matter.
“I’m really hopeful as well that our colleagues will join us because of this moment that we’re all trying to meet and the consciousness that I think has been raised particularly in the last six months,” Miranda, a Roxbury Democrat, said. “Across this country, there hasn’t been one group of folks that hasn’t been moved by what’s been happening nationally and locally.”
Bill sponsor Sen. Jamie Eldridge, an Acton Democrat, said the inauguration of President Joe Biden and the “racial equity lens” that has taken on new importance on Beacon Hill will also boost the legislation’s chances.
“The reality is the vast majority of undocumented immigrants who are being deported in Massachusetts and every other state are people of color,” he said. “We’re hoping more and more of our colleagues will look at this bill through that racial equity lens and get behind the bill.”
Several speakers warned at the bill unveiling that many people in immigrant communities have been hesitant to seek medical care during the pandemic because they are concerned that any interaction with the health care system could expose them to possible enforcement.
The latest bill filed Tuesday is virtually identical to one that supporters have been pushing since 2017.
It would prohibit police and court officials from inquiring about an individual’s immigration status unless required by law, prevent law enforcement and the courts from notifying ICE about an individual’s pending release from custody unless the person is completing incarceration, and require written consent from anyone arrested before federal immigration authorities can conduct an interview.
The bill, which supporters refer to as the Safe Communities Act, would also void so-called 287(g) agreements that ICE reaches with local law enforcement agencies outlining collaboration. Several Massachusetts sheriff departments have used such agreements.
“There’s a lot of fear in the immigrant community, and we are here today to say that there is legislation that can be passed that could calm that fear,” said Rep. Ruth Balser, a Newton Democrat and one of the bill’s other cosponsors. “By drawing a line and saying that the local and state authorities are not going to be involved with federal immigration enforcement, our community will feel safer.”
Opponents, which include the Massachusetts Republican Party and Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson, have argued at heated public hearings that creating barriers between local, state and federal agencies could imperil public safety. So far, they have been successful in keeping the bills bottled up in Beacon Hill committees.
The legislation has long had a substantial core of supporters — more than 90 of Beacon Hill’s 200 lawmakers cosponsored versions in each of the past two sessions — but it never reached the floor of the House or Senate as a standalone bill.
In 2018, the Senate added similar language to its fiscal year 2019 budget by a 25-13 vote, but the provision did not survive House-Senate negotiations on the final spending bill. Former House Speaker Robert DeLeo said in July 2018 that “it would be very difficult” to secure the proposal’s passage.
The latest push will play out under a new speaker, former DeLeo top deputy Ronald Mariano. Balser said Mariano “has talked about putting more votes out on the floor,” which could improve the outlook if sponsors secure enough support.
A Mariano spokesperson told the News Service “it’s premature to comment on the prospects of any one particular bill,” saying the speaker is focused on finishing bill filings and starting the committee process.
Balser, like Eldridge, also said she believes the Biden administration’s focus on immigration reform could help.
Biden sent legislation to Congress shortly after he was inaugurated that would create a pathway to citizenship for the nearly 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. On Tuesday, he unveiled additional executive actions aimed at reuniting families separated by the Trump administration’s border policies, amending the asylum system to be more “humane,” and reforming the legal immigration system.
“I think that actually having a partner in Washington may make this easier for our colleagues to support,” Balser said. “This legislation — the motivation behind it anyway, if not the details — is so consistent with what our new administration in Washington is trying to do that I think there are many people who will feel more comfortable stepping up.”
Last year, the Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee favorably reported the bill without disclosing the vote margin. Neither branch’s Ways and Means Committee took it up after that.
Eldridge, who first offered a predecessor version of the legislation in 2013, said Tuesday that the committee’s support was an important milestone that could create a foundation for success this time around.
“It’s a common statement for almost any major bill that it takes upwards of six to eight years often to pass the bill,” Eldridge said. “The fact that the bill was reported favorably without any changes last session is very encouraging.”
Supporters will likely need to secure enough votes from the Democratic super-majorities in both chambers to override a gubernatorial veto if they wish to see it become law.
Republican Gov. Charlie Baker has for several years opposed the immigration enforcement reforms. He said in May 2018 that he would veto the similar Senate budget language, arguing that “decisions like this belong with local law enforcement.”
Asked in July 2020 if his views on the bill had changed, Baker simply replied, “No.”