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Tea Party scuffles with immigrant activists at Secure Communities forum in Chelsea

A heated battle between immigrant advocates and Tea Party supporters erupted yesterday in Chelsea High School's auditorium, as activists gathered to protest the controversial Secure Communities, a federal program that uses data from local law enforcement agencies to track down illegal immigrants.

Under the Secure Communities program -- which bills itself as "A Modernized Approach to Identifying and Removing Criminal Aliens" -- local police share the fingerprints of everyone they arrest with the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security. The program is supposed to help Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to deport illegals who have committed serious crimes, like murder or kidnapping, or who have long records of criminal behavior.

Boston was one of the cities which participated in a pilot version of Secure Communities, quietly initiated in 2006; and according to ICE, there are plans for the program "to reach complete nationwide deployment by 2013." Secure Communities has proved divisive, however, in part because tens of thousands of individuals deported under the program were arrested only for minor crimes, or have no prior offenses.

Moreover, there has been confusion over how the program is being deployed; it's unclear whether a state or city can choose to opt out. A New York Times article last month showed that in Chicago, the Department of Homeland Security had pressured an unwilling mayor and sheriff to adopt the program.

In Chelsea, the auditorium was filled to capacity by hundreds of people holding signs that read "Secure Communities will make our Community Unsafe", "Say no to Secure Communities, it Legitimizes Profiling of Non White Immigrants" and "Take Away One Freedom and Soon They Are all Gone."

Curtis Wood, undersecretary of Forensic Science and Technology for the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, defended the program. "This does not authorize local law enforcement to enforce immigration law," he said. "It's not the same as the Arizona immigration law."

After Wood and Mary Elizabeth Heffernan, secretary of EOPSS, provided an overview of the program, about 70 people lined up on opposite sides of the stage to express their concerns. The majority of them were cheered on by the crowd as they argued that Secure Communities will deter people from reporting crime in fears of being persecuted by immigration officials.

"I am committed to work for justice and I feel that the immigrant community works extremely hard and gets exploited," said Vicky Steinitz, coordinator for Cambridge United for Justice with Peace. "They have no choice but to come here, and once they are here they are scapegoated."

Their opposition were a dozen of the program's supporters -- one of whom identified himself as a Tea Party member. As the crowd tried to show them down, they denied allegations of racial profiling and stated the program would only benefit everyone by getting rid of offenders. Some of them held signs saying "We want Our Communities Safe Now."

According to ICE statistics, in Massachusetts, 381 convicted criminal aliens have been arrested or booked into custody, and 137 have been deported using Secure Communities.

"You folks are here in America because life is better here," said Secure Communities booster Barbara Omara. "The major reason for that is that it's always been a country of laws. We are all from immigrants, but legal immigrants."

>>Read more El Planeta coverage of Secure Communities on TuBoston.com<<

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