Police Outreach Aims at Illegals

Oak Bluffs Chief, Lieutenant Ready Pamphlet in Portuguese to Educate Brazilians, Ease Fears of Deportation


Picture a road accident, one car rear-ended by another. The Oak Bluffs police are in attendance, talking to the driver of the car that was hit, who happens to be Brazilian. Another car drives by and a woman shouts out the window: "Why don't you leave those people alone?"

Oak Bluffs police chief Erik Blake and Lieut. Timothy Williamson tag team on telling the story, an illustration of the suspicion and distrust that afflicts relations with the Brazilian community on the Island, and an example of why they have spent the past several months working on a new outreach plan.

A pamphlet with a cover letter from Chief Blake is now being translated into Portuguese for distribution among the Island's estimated 3,000 to 5,000 Brazilians, and it sets out to debunk a couple of misconceptions, as well as explain a lot of legalities.

First among them is that Brazilians are particularly targeted in law enforcement.

Second and more important is the misconception among members of the Brazilian community, most of whom are undocumented, that they cannot go to the police for help, for fear of having their immigration status become an issue.

"We were hearing there is a lot of fear in the community that they don't want to come to the police for help because they're afraid that their immigration status will be the topic we're concerned with, not the fact that they were victimized," Lieutenant Williamson said, adding:

"They're afraid they'll get deported, but we don't have the authority to enforce federal immigration laws."

This is a point made repeatedly in the pamphlet - local police have no authority to enforce federal immigration law. They cannot detain anyone simply because of their immigration status, even if there is an outstanding federal immigration warrant for them.

"If someone has been victimized, their immigration status is of no concern to us," Lieutenant Williamson said.

And undocumented people can be easy victims.

"I've heard instances of employers threatening them. They withhold wages or something and say, ‘If you go to the police I'm going to tell them that you're an illegal and you're going to get deported‚‘ " Lieutenant Williamson said.

"Withholding wages is actually a crime," Chief Blake added.

He said landlords have been known to make similar threats. Then there is the matter of domestic violence.

"It would be a tragedy right up there with losing one of our kids in a car accident if some woman [who was a victim of domestic violence] was killed or seriously hurt because she was afraid to go to the police because she overstayed her visa by six months," said Chief Blake. "I wouldn't want that on our conscience, over a misdemeanor visa violation."

Both officers said the Island's Brazilian population is no less law abiding than any other part of the community, except in one regard: driving offenses. And it is that aspect of law enforcement which has done the most to create the perception that Brazilians are targeted.

Chief Blake said the perception is wrong. "I want that community to understand that we don't just see someone and because we think they are Brazilian, turn on the blue lights and pull them over. That's illegal, it's immoral and we just don't do it." He continued:

"We do not racial profile. But we do enforce the laws of Massachusetts equally - whether they're documented or undocumented, if they break the law they're going to go to jail. We just want people properly licensed and properly insured because accidents happen."

Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. Undocumented people cannot legitimately obtain drivers' licenses. And if they are caught driving without a license, part of the booking process at the sheriff's department calls for deputies to contact Immigration Customs Enforcement - known as ICE - to check their status. But in most instances this does not mean deportment.

"Unless there is a federal detainer warrant in effect - which means a federal judge has ordered them deported already - nothing's going to happen. They're going to get bail just like a U.S. citizen," Chief Blake said, adding:

"It has to be a serious offense that someone actually gets picked up, taken back to Boston and then deported. It's not because they were driving a lawn-mowing truck on Martha's Vineyard."

The police are not without sympathy for the Brazilians caught in this bind - the law does not take their offense seriously enough to deport them, but neither does it legitimize their behavior. Nevertheless, police are charged with enforcement.

Chief Blake agreed that it would be easier all around - and certainly safer - if some way were found to allow undocumented people to obtain drivers' licenses and insurance.

But the problem is compounded by the fact that so many Brazilians do not use their real names.

"There are so many fake identities. You give a licence to someone who's used a fake name and social security number, what good is it? It's just another piece of fake information," he said.

"Now if you have a legitimate person - and you can really document them . . . " He paused. "Well, that's for our politicians to figure."

Meanwhile, the stark reality remains: as long as there are thousands of undocumented people living on the Vineyard, police are left to cope with the ones who engage in criminal behavior, even if they have no real criminal intent.

But once the pamphlet prepared by Oak Bluffs police is disseminated through the immigrant community, many at least will know more about where they stand. And where they can go for help. No questions asked.