080217 holbert
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Conflicting signals from the state’s highest court and the U.S. Department of Justice have put Massachusetts in an immigration pickle. Gov. Charlie Baker is making the right call by filing a bill to grant state and local police the authority — the very limited authority — to hold certain illegal immigrants until federal authorities can take them into custody.

The Supreme Judicial Court last week ruled that nothing in state law allows court officers in Massachusetts to hold an individual who is subject to a federal immigration detainer — effectively, to arrest him — beyond the point at which he would otherwise be released. So if a suspect arrested on a robbery charge makes bail he can’t be held beyond that point, even if he has a violent criminal record, is under a deportation order and the feds plan to come pick him up.

Baker yesterday filed legislation that would give police and court officers the authority to honor the requests of federal immigration officials by holding certain individuals — those convicted of rape, domestic violence or drug trafficking, for example, and who are in custody on new charges — for up to 12 hours after they’d otherwise be released. The bill authorizes, but doesn’t require, cooperation with the feds.

The measure would “fill the statutory gap” raised by the SJC, Baker said. It is also a sensible counterweight to a bill long promoted by progressives that would forbid cops from holding even violent criminals on a civil immigration detainer.

Complicating matters slightly is the announcement last week from the Trump administration that it plans to withhold certain crime-fighting grants from communities and states that refuse to cooperate with immigration authorities, having declared themselves a “sanctuary” for illegal immigrants. Massachusetts has made no such declaration (although some cities and towns have). But the SJC ruling effectively made that determination on the commonwealth’s behalf.

The Trump administration’s efforts are being challenged in the courts, but this really isn’t about money anyway. It’s about public safety. Beacon Hill can avoid any of the controversy — and do the right thing — by working with Baker on a bill that would protect public safety without turning state troopers or local cops into ICE agents.