Patrick says he won’t sign Secure Communities program

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Patrick says he won’t sign Secure Communities program

By Maria Sacchetti and Noah Bierman, Globe Staff

In a major turnaround on immigration enforcement, Governor Deval Patrick said today that he will refuse to sign the controversial federal Secure Communities program, which refers illegal immigrants arrested even for minor crimes to federal immigration officials for deportation.

The refusal sets up a showdown with the federal government over a key initiative on illegal immigration, and follows states such as Illinois and New York refusing to sign on to the program. In a letter dated Friday, Public Safety Secretary Mary E. Heffernan said the state was concerned that the program, which refers criminals based on fingerprints, is creating fear in the immigrant community and is netting more non-criminals, such as those caught driving without a license, than hard-core offenders.

“The Governor and I are dubious of the Commonwealth taking on the role of federal immigration enforcement,” Heffernan, wrote in the letter to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Homeland Security agency in charge of detaining and deporting illegal immigrants. “We are even more skeptical of the impact that Secure Communities could have on residents of the Commonwealth.”

She said the Patrick administration was concerned that Secure Communities wasn’t meeting its main goals — deporting hard-core criminals. She said that more than half of those deported under Boston’s program were non-criminals and only 1 in 4 were hard-core criminals, and accused ICE of sending mixed messages about the program.

It is unclear why it took the Patrick administration months to come to this conclusion, since the statistics were available in media reports since last year.

In December, the Patrick administration said it would sign up with the federal program, because it snagged violent criminals for deportation, something the administration still supports, and because the program would be mandatory nationwide by 2013. The Patrick administration noted Boston’s willing participation in the program. The city had piloted it for the federal government since 2006 and continued when it expanded in 2008.

But advocates for immigrants protested, saying that ICE’s own statistics showed that more than half of those detained by the program were non-criminals.

The protests prompted the Patrick administration to hold a series of public meetings this year to address concerns about the program, eliciting sharply different views.

Immigrant advocates said illegal immigrants would be afraid to call the police for help, while Tea Party activists urged the governor to sign on to Secure Communities to sweep criminals out of the country.

Advocates for immigrants today hailed the news that Patrick would not sign.

Centro Presente, a Somerville-based statewide advocacy group that was among the first to protest the program, urged Boston to drop out as well.

“We are obviously very pleased that Governor Patrick has decided to not enter Massachusetts into the Secure Communities Program.  He campaigned as a friend of the immigrant community and with this act he has walked that talk,” said executive director Patricia Montes, adding, “We hope that Mayor Menino will reconsider Boston’s participation in this program in light of its poor performance as reflected in ICE’s own statistics.”

Christen Varley, president of the Greater Boston Tea Party, expressed outrage today at the Patrick administration’s refusal to sign up for the program, saying it puts all Massachusetts residents at risk, including illegal immigrants. She pointed out the case of an illegal Ecuadoran immigrant, who had been arrested and released before he allegedly went on to kill a Brockton woman, also here illegally, and her 2-year-old son in February.

She said her group would continue to lobby hard for the program.

“The reality is the people of America do want this because they are tired of paying the bill, they are tired of being victimized,” she said, adding, “We have concrete examples of where horrific crimes could have been prevented.”

The Secure Communities program is now in 42 states, according to ICE. Since it began in October 2008 through April 30, 2011, ICE has deported more than 77,000 criminals; less than half were convicted of aggravated felonies such as murder.