Belmont Police ‘Not in the Habit’ of Asking Immigration Status

Photo: Belmont Police badge and patch. 

When asked about the department’s policy regarding persons with illegal status in the country, Belmont Police Assistant Captain James MacIsaac said while the department does not have written guidelines, when it comes to conducting local policing, “Belmont’s officers are not in the habit of asking about the immigration status of a victim, witness, or suspect.”

But while being an illegal immigration will not solely lead to that person’s arrest, if Belmont Police is asked by federal authorities to detain a person not lawfully in the country who is in custody for a crime, “I would expect our officers to cooperate,” said MacIsaac. 

The question of police cooperation with federal immigration law is at the heart of a likely citizen’s petition being prepared by residents which would make Belmont a “sanctuary” community through a vote at May’s annual Town Meeting. 

Belmont sanctuary supporters are pointing to a effort in Arlington, using similar language that would prevent local police from “engaging in or assisting in Immigration and Customs Enforcement in reporting, arresting, detaining deporting, or taking any other law enforcement action unsupported by separate and distinct warrants or probable cause from criminal conduct unrelated to immigration status.” 

Belmont Police’s current policy appears to takes a hands-off approach to the legal status of residents and visitors to Belmont: being an illegal immigrant or migrant is not of the utmost importance for law enforcement. 

MacIsaac said typically Belmont officers will encounter a person whose immigration status would be “questionable” occurs during a traffic stop.

For example, if a driver does not have a license, the officer may discover the person is a foreign citizen who is unable to obtain a Massachusetts RMV license because they do not have legal status in the US.

But that is as far as Belmont Police will go on the person’s status

“[T]he the fact that the immigration status would be questionable does not lead to actual questioning about the status,” said MacIsaac.

“Officers in these circumstances handle their business with a possibly illegal immigrant using state laws about driving unlicensed and then move on,” he said.

MacIsaac said only when a person is arrested would their illegal status officially come to the department’s attention.

As with all who are arrested f0r a crime in Belmont, the arrestee’s fingerprints are transmitted to the Massachusetts State Police and the FBI which assists the Department in identifying the person arrested, if they have a criminal record and determining if there are outstanding warrants.

One of the databases that fingerprint records are checked against, automatically, is one maintained by Homeland Security.

In response to the information that an alien with illegal status is in currently in Belmont PD custody, an official with Homeland Security could send to Belmont Police an “immigration detainer” which allows them to hold the person in custody for up to 48 hours in addition to whatever time they might be arrested for any state charges.

In Belmont, cooperating with the federal government’s request is part and parcel of good policing.

“In the media, one hears the heads of different law enforcement agencies say that they do or do not cooperate with these detainers. For my part, I expect that our officers will assist every US law enforcement agency in the accomplishment of their [legitimate] objectives, just as we would expect the same cooperation from those agencies in the accomplishment of our objectives,” said MacIsaac.

So far, the department has only seen one or two of these detainers, said Macisaac and its cooperation had been limited to providing the detainer to the district court for its action when we transfer a prisoner.

“It has certainly been less burdensome than other forms of civil detention in which the department is involved,” said MacIsaac.

For MacIsaac, the primary job of the department is to protect Belmont’s residents and visitors from crime, no matter the citizenship or immigration situation of the suspect.

“If inquiring into and using the immigration status of a person might help [us] remove from our community a serious criminal more quickly or effectively for the protection of our residents, I certainly support our officers in doing so,” said MacIsaac.

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