Patrick meets immigrant advocates after stand-off (video)

by Tom Nash on February 15, 2011

Undersecretary of Public Safety John Grossman speaks with protesters at the Statehouse.

What began as an organized Statehouse rally by Somerville-based immigrant advocacy group Centro Presente Monday ended in a stand-off with Patrick administration officials after he would not receive the group personally.

“Whose house? Our house!” chanted the two dozen protesters, who ultimately waited at the entrance to the Executive Chambers for three hours. They angrily denounced attempts made to explain Gov. Deval Patrick’s stance on the federal Secure Communities program from anyone but the governor himself.

After being told Patrick was in a series of meetings and could not break his schedule, Centro Presente Executive Director Patricia Montes and others continued the chanting as they waited throughout the afternoon, until they were told they had to stop or go outside.

That morning, Montes lead a rally that saw community activists and Somerville State Rep. Denise Provost addressing supporters before proceeding up the Great Hall staircase to the governor’s office to deliver a stack of postcards protesting the Secure Communities program.

The Secure Communities program, instituted by the Department of Homeland Security, calls for local law enforcement to share fingerprint data with federal officials in order to track undocumented immigrants. Patrick signaled in December that Massachusetts would likely sign on to the program, angering many in the immigrant community who had worked for his re-election just a month before.

At one point, Undersecretary for Public Safety John Grossman emerged from the office to speak with the protesters, which quickly devolved into a contentious back-and-forth that saw Grossman imploring the crowd to stop shouting.

“Tomorrow the FBI can turn a switch and start sharing the fingerprints that are collected on a routine basis,” Grossman said as he noted the state would be holding hearings on the program before making a decision. “They don’t need us to participate; they don’t need to listen to you.”

“It is our current intention to sign some form of the Secure Communities agreement,” Grossman said, adding after more shouting broke out that, “There is a reason we have not signed yet.”

Grossman said the December announcement was “not the way we do business.” He insisted over jeering from the protesters that they are ignoring the public safety aspect of the Secure Communities agreement.

“I don’t want someone convicted of serious crimes walking around on the streets,” he said. “I don’t want someone who’s a fugitive from justice walking around.”

Andres Del Castillo, a college student who at the earlier rally explained his own struggles as the child of an undocumented immigrant, asserted angrily that Grossman did not understand the situation.

“You can talk to me about murderers and rapists, and, guess what? They scare the crap out of me, too,” Del Castillo said. “But I will not act on fear, because fear and the actions based on fear have led to injustice in this country.”

He said, “I will not let you skew murderers and rapists as an excuse to consider (the Secure Communities program).”

Del Castillo said as a taxpayer, he is unwilling to bear the burden of paying to detain undocumented immigrants like his mother.

“I will not pay her incarceration—I will not,” he shouted at Grossman. “That is not justice, and that is not a dialogue that I am going to have.”

See the video below for more of the exchange between Grossman and Del Castillo:

After officials returned to Patrick’s office, the group continued waiting outside the Executive Chambers, interspersing chants, singing and prayer when not sending text messages encouraging others to join them.

Gladys Vega, the executive director of the Chelsea Collaborative, accused the Patrick Administration of brushing her aside after spending “hundreds of hours” volunteering for his re-election campaign last summer, but said she remained a supporter.

“I’m in love with the guy,” Vega said. “He’s so charismatic, and I believe him. I believe in his word.”

Vega added undocumented immigrants campaigned for Patrick “all the time. They believe in him.”

Sitting on the floor next to the security checkpoint for the office, Centro Presente Youth Organizer Laura Gonzalez, a Ten Hills resident, said she did not expect the rally’s shift into protest mode.

“I don’t know how to explain it,” Gonzalez said.  “My father is undocumented. I was also undocumented until four years ago. I know what it is to feel like you have no power.”

Newell Hendricks, a member of the Boston-based New Sanctuary Movement, had his own theory about why the protest erupted.

“The people here, having seen what happened in Egypt, felt empowered to address the governor,” he said, referencing the mass demonstrations that forced the resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak last week.

Hendricks said his own motivation, however, stemmed from his faith community.

“I believe in paying attention to the most vulnerable,” he said. “Immigrants right now are the most vulnerable.”

Around 3 p.m., a handful of representatives were allowed to meet with Patrick. After about 15 minutes, Patrick and the protesters emerged separately from the chambers to speak to the crowd of reporters that had assembled.

While Patrick said nothing has been finalized, the state would comply with the program if it is mandated, which he said he believes to be the case.

Patrick said, however, that he is leery of overburdening local law enforcement.

“I don’t think that asking our local law enforcement to enforce federal laws is the best use of their time,” he said, “because they have a lot of other things to do as it is and this is a tremendously demanding program.”

Patrick said the state would hold public hearings on the issue.

See the video below for the reaction to the meeting from participants Del Castillo, Montes, Vega, Jim Wallace of Old Cambridge Baptist Church, Rev. Edwin Johnson of St. James Episcopal Church in Cambridge and Centro Presente President Gabriel Comacho.

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