Police in Framingham withdraw from federal immigration program October 1, 2009
Dan McDonald 508-626-4416 Metrowest Daily News
FRAMINGHAM -- The Police Department divorced itself from a federal deal Thursday that gave it access to federal criminal databases and granted two officers the power to act as immigration officials.

The department pulled out of the agreement after Immigration and Custom Enforcement pushed to expand Framingham's immigration enforcement role.

The federal government wanted to change the agreement by requiring local police to help issue immigration detainers and assist in deportations.

Police say that could alienate an already reticent immigrant community.

"We want them to report crimes," said Police Chief Steven Carl. "We want them to call us when they're victims. We don't want them to be afraid of us. If we participated in the full (program), they'd be terrified of us."

ICE's wish would also have stretched an already understaffed department and cost a cash-strapped town more money, Carl said yesterday.

The original memo of understanding allowed Framingham Police to tap into a database to help investigate violent crimes.

Police spokesman Lt. Paul Shastany acknowledges the department has been caught in the middle of a debate on immigration enforcement. Some say the police are doing too much, others charge they're not doing enough.

That division was reflected in the community as the news of Framingham dropping out of the federal program broke late yesterday.

Vera Dias Freitas, a local leader in the Brazilian community, said it is "wise that Framingham is pulling out of the program."

"The reality is the existence of immigrants is everywhere," she said. "What needs to be done is immigration reform where people are able to find a pathway to citizenship. No one wants to be living in the shadows. We should be looking for ways to support such reform."

Town Meeting member Dan Gittelsohn is on the opposite side.

He thought the federal government should allow every town and city to investigate and deport "any illegal alien in this country." He thought that would better protect "every legal citizen of this country."

Gittelsohn said he is outraged existing immigration laws are not enforced more stringently.

The program was better than nothing, he said, adding, "In defense of the Framingham Police Department, financially, I understand why they're having a hard time with this."

Framingham entered into the program, known as 297(g), in August 2007 because of crimes that were going unreported, said Shastany.

"Oftentimes people within the Brazilian community would know of a person who was using an alias and they would be reluctant to talk to us," said Shastany.

The original agreement allowed police to tap into databases that can shed light on violent felons, human or drug smugglers, gang members or immigration fugitives. Some such criminals use aliases, so their names do not show up in the state or FBI databases typically used by local authorities.

Shastany cited two high-profile crimes - a death stemming from a botched black market liposuction in 2006 and a fatal domestic assault that same year - where Brazilians in the community did not go straight to the police to report a crime, despite the fact that Brazilians were victims.

"This was a way for us to use the information that we would not get during an investigation," said Shastany. "Otherwise, we had no means to find out who people are."

The intent of the program was to help solve "crimes involving gangs, guns, violent drug-related crimes, violent domestic assault and batteries, things like that."

The original agreement did not call for officers to conduct random street operations, investigate day laborers or question the immigration status of anyone.

Police have stopped using computers they obtained from the federal government as part of the program. ICE needs to pick them up.

Even if the department wanted to undertake an expanded role in local immigration enforcement, it does not have the resources to do so.

Carl said it would "crush us, financially.'

Framingham Police do not have the manpower for things like seeking a deportation warrant and going to federal court to testify, said Shastany.

The agreement, in which the federal government authorized two officers to act as immigration officials, unsettled local immigrants.

Shastany said police didn't use the program "as often as people think."

Under 287(g), police arrested three immigrants connected to a spate of robberies within the first year of its implementation.

All three had connections to street gangs and were deported to Brazil.

Shastany stressed the department will continue to cooperate with ICE whenever possible. "We're just not immigration officers," he said.

The Barnstable County sheriff's office was also pulling out of the program, according to the Associated Press.

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