DARTMOUTH — Bristol County Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson and federal immigration representatives fielded probing questions about detainees’ rights from the public on Thursday during the first annual public meeting required under Hodgson’s contract to deputize his officers as agents of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
About 25 people gathered in a meeting room at the sheriff’s office. Many expressed concerns about oversight of detainee treatment, local employees doing federal enforcement, and the potential to deport people who have not violated any other laws.
Todd Lyons, deputy field office director for ICE in Boston, said the program allows his agency to focus on people who have been arrested for a crime. That runs counter to the frequent talk that the operation would have a “chilling effect” on the community by scaring families, he said.
But in the audience, Becca Britt of Wareham said ICE gets involved before a person held by the sheriff’s office has been convicted of a crime. Thus, people could be deported if their only violation is being in the country without authorization.
“It does have a chilling effect, I imagine,” she said.
Six of the sheriff’s officers have been trained and deputized for ICE.
William Sullivan, program manager of the local partnership program for the Boston field office of ICE, said that people in the sheriff’s custody on suspicion of crimes get asked where they were born. If they were born outside the United States, it triggers a check to see if they are in the country illegally.
To date, 130 people in Bristol County have been screened in that manner, and eight have been forwarded for immigration proceedings, he said, prompting a woman in the audience to question what happens to foreign-born people who are U.S. citizens.
“Should we all be carrying our passports with us?” she said.
Hodgson said he took an oath to uphold the law and do everything he can to enforce it and protect the public. He could not knowingly release someone he knows is a public safety threat if that person is in the country illegally, he said.
He could never tell the public, “You could’ve been safer, but for the fact that I didn’t do my job,” he said.
Hodgson also said his office pays half the salary of someone from the New Bedford Immigrants’ Assistance Center to work with people in his custody.
Lyons said that for the perhaps 12 million to 14 million illegal immigrants in the United States, the New England area has only 100 to 110 ICE agents.
In July, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that in the absence of a criminal charge, court officers do not have the authority to hold or arrest someone solely on a civil immigration matter. Being in the country illegally is a civil matter, but crossing the border illegally is a crime.
After employee training and information technology upgrades, the partnership began operating in September, according to Jonathan Darling, a spokesman for Hodgson.
Thursday’s meeting was the first of annual meetings required under the ICE agreement. The partnership is authorized by Section 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act.
It was a meeting of the 287(g) steering committee, which includes Hodgson, Lyons, Sullivan, and two sheriff's office employees: Steven Souza, superintendent of security operations, and Liunetty Couto, director of deportation services.