Democrats on Beacon Hill are making another push on a bill they say would help protect immigrants. GBH State House reporter Mike Deehan discussed the Safe Communities Act with GBH All Things Considered host Arun Rath. This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Arun Rath: This bill has been kicking around for a while, but we may not all be familiar with it. Remind us what's in there.
Mike Deehan: Yeah, the Safe Communities Act tries to protect undocumented immigrants who are residing in Massachusetts from deportation and different situations that could lead to deportation. The bill would end agreements between county sheriffs and federal immigration authorities. Those types of things do happen in Massachusetts. It would prevent courts and police from asking about immigration status unless it's specifically required by the law. It informs anyone arrested or detained that they're subject to intervention by immigration officials. This is because of ICE interviews that were coming where people didn't quite know their rights. It's almost a Miranda warning for immigration, is the way that advocates put it.
One big thing is that it makes it so that courts can only inform U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the end of a prisoner's incarceration, not before they are sentenced to prison. That's something that we saw happening, where federal immigration would kind of swoop in before someone would be shipped to their sentence, and they wouldn't be able to serve their sentence in Massachusetts. They would then be deported by the feds that way. This would kind of make it so that it can only happen at the end.
So overall, the bill would make it easier for undocumented immigrants who are here to live and work in Massachusetts with less of a fear of deportation.
Of course, opponents think that something like this will empower "lawbreakers" and make it much harder for law enforcement to remove undocumented immigrants that might have a criminal or violent background.
Rath: This seems like it's a pretty popular bill though, right?
Deehan: Yeah, it is fairly popular by Beacon Hill standards. It's got 90 cosponsors out of 160 members of the House, and 40 additional senators, so 90 out of 200 lawmakers overall.
But because it's such a controversial issue, it's not a guarantee that that number of co-sponsors means it will get a vote. Immigration is such a touchy subject that a lot of Democrats, especially those kind of moderate or conservative-leaning Democrats from conservative-leaning districts, they don't want to vote on it. The Democratic majority in Massachusetts protects that majority, so if a vulnerable Democrat thinks that they could lose their seat to a Republican over a vote like this, they will ask leadership to avoid putting it on the floor for a vote.
That kind of thing shows you that there just is not an overwhelming consensus and support within the legislature that former House Speaker Robert DeLeo would often demand before he put bills on the floor for votes.
Rath: Speaking of former Speaker DeLeo, there's a new speaker right now, Ron Mariano of Quincy. What does that mean for the bill's chances? Any idea?
Deehan: Yeah, that does kind of change the math a little bit. We're not really sure. This is the dawn of the Mariano era, so to speak. He has said when he was being inaugurated as speaker that he wants to bring some bills to the floor sooner than his predecessor did, and he wants to let members vote one way or another, up or down on things, instead of just kind of letting them roll over session after session. He has not made any promises about that specific bill or anything like that. The State House News Service reached him at his office to ask him about this particular bill, and he said it's way too early to weigh in on something like that, as they are just setting up committees and setting up their process. But supporters do think that Mariano might be more open to saying, hey, you got 90 co-sponsors, let's put this thing to a vote and see where it lands.
The Senate, of course, leans left of the House, and it's expected to pass in the Senate, especially if the House gets it done first. That leaves Gov. Charlie Baker, the Republican in the room, who has been adamant that he doesn't want to change these immigration laws. He thinks that these are local issues, these decisions should be made by local law enforcement if they want to interact with federal immigration agencies, and it is not the state's place to put a blanket prevention in place.
Rath: Would the Democrats have the votes right now to override a veto?
Deehan: Not right now, not with those 90 votes so far.You need two-thirds to override the governor, so it might be too steep a hill to climb on a controversial issue like this.