BOSTON — A group of mostly Republican state, county and municipal leaders are behind a new ballot initiative that seeks to prevent Massachusetts from taking steps to declare itself a "sanctuary state."
Under the proposal, state and local law enforcement would be authorized to detain certain people based on requests from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement if an administrative warrant is issued and there is probable cause to suspect the individual is "a threat to public safety" and living in the U.S. illegally.
Any detention in excess of 12 hours would be subject to judicial review.
State agencies with police powers would be required to adopt written procedures for detaining suspects sought by federal immigration authorities, according to the proposal.
Proponents of the measure, including Amesbury Mayor Ken Gray and Peabody City Councilor Anne-Manning Martin, want to put the question before voters in the 2020 elections.
It was one of 16 proposed ballot questions submitted to Attorney General Maura Healey's office for consideration Wednesday. If Healey certifies the question, supporters must gather the signatures of 80,239 registered voters — the first of several hurdles to make the 2020 ballot.
At least four state lawmakers — Reps. Colleen Garry, D-Dracut, William Crocker, R-Centerville, and Norman Orrall, R-Lakewood, and Sen. Dean Tran, R-Fitchburg — are among the 14 elected officials who signed the petition.
Others who have signed include Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O'Keefe, Norfolk County Sheriff Jerry McDermott and Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson, all Republicans.
Hodgson, one of the state's most vocal opponents of sanctuary policies, has been praised by Republican President Donald Trump for his support of tougher immigration policies.
Immigrant rights groups say giving police authority to cooperate with immigration agents makes communities less safe, dissuading people from reporting crime for fear of deportation.
"We know when police act as immigration agents, victims and witnesses become afraid to talk to them," said Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant Refugee Advocacy Coalition. "Our immigrant communities are living in fear, and a proposal like this would only make things worse."
Millona said it’s "unfortunate" the initiative is being led by state and local elected officials "who are supposed to represent their communities, not a divisive political agenda."
"Especially in these toxic times, they need to be focusing on policies and what's good for their communities and stop playing politics," she said.
The proposed ballot question comes as Beacon Hill is once again considering a proposal that would cement a de facto statewide ban on cooperation by local law enforcement with federal immigration agents.
Last year, the Supreme Judicial Court similarly ruled that local police don't have the power to detain people on immigration charges unless they also face criminal charges. The court ruled that local police cannot cooperate if ICE asks for someone to be held until its agents arrive, but the court said the Legislature has the power to require that.
In response to the ruling, Gov. Charlie Baker filed legislation seeking to authorize, but not require, state and local police to honor specific ICE detainers for "aliens who pose a threat to public safety." Lawmakers haven’t taken up his proposal, but the proposed ballot initiative is similar in wording to Baker's legislation.
"This really isn't about immigration, it's about public safety and giving law enforcement the authority they had before the Supreme Judicial Court decision," said Gardner Mayor Mark Hawke, a Republican who signed on to the ballot initiative. "If someone poses a threat, the authorities should be able to detain them."
"It's a common-sense approach to dealing with the issue, but unfortunately it's likely to be politicized beyond belief," he added.
On Beacon Hill, Democratic lawmakers have refiled the so-called Safe Communities Act that declares Massachusetts a sanctuary state but still honors detainers for criminal suspects.
Opponents of such policies say police should be working with federal authorities, instead of blocking criminals from arrest and deportation.
Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, a conservative Washington think tank that advocates for stricter limits on immigration, said the proposal doesn't go far enough.
"This won't be adequate to prevent criminal aliens from walking out of jails across the state," she said. "It would only allow authorities to hold a narrow set of offenders, and only for 12 hours."
Sanctuary policies vary widely by community, and many are aimed at preventing local law enforcement from acting as immigration agents.
Under Salem's Sanctuary for Peace ordinance, upheld by voters in 2017, authorities do not question people's immigration status during routine interaction, such as when someone calls the police or another city department.
The ordinance does not prevent police from cooperating with immigration officials in criminal matters, however.
Lawrence's policy, approved by the City Council in 2015, directs police not to cooperate with immigration agents seeking illegal immigrants unless they have criminal warrants.
Nationally, more than 200 local and state governments have adopted policies limiting cooperation with federal requests to detain people for possible deportation.
Trump has vowed to crack down on sanctuary communities. The Republican signed an executive order in 2017 vowing to withhold grants from communities that refuse to cooperate. But his crackdown has been blunted by a series of federal court rulings that local police cannot hold people at the behest of immigration agents.
Baker has said he doesn’t oppose communities that adopt sanctuary policies, but he’s threatened to veto the sanctuary state bill if it reaches his desk.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites.