Our Opinion: 'Sanctuary' initiative will cause a stir

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As many as 10 initiative petitions — with questions ranging from immigration to car engines — could crowd Massachusetts' election ballot in November 2020, assuring expensive pro and con campaigns that often do more to obscure than they do to enlighten.

The questions passed constitutional muster with Attorney General Maura Healey, who also cleared two constitutional amendments that may reach the ballot in 2022. The next step in the process requires backers of each initiative to collect at least 80,239 signatures from registered voters by Dec. 4.

With immigration a hot issue, the likely most controversial proposed ballot initiative would allow local police to detain undocumented immigrants wanted for deportation. Two years ago, the state Supreme Judicial Court ruled that Massachusetts law enforcement officers do not have to comply with requests from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to hold immigrants until federal agents can arrest them. Indeed, many communities, including some in the Berkshires, have passed laws preventing their police departments from cooperating with ICE in these instances. Police maintain that when they are dragged into these situations they lose credibility in local immigrant communities.

A bill proposed by Gov. Baker following the SJC ruling requiring local police to hold undocumented immigrants at the request of ICE went nowhere in the Legislature. The follow-up is the ballot initiative brought by a group of Republican legislators, mayors, city councilors, district attorneys and law enforcement officials.

The effort, called the Massachusetts Prevent Sanctuary Cities Initiative (2020), employs a loaded word — "sanctuary" — implying that certain cities and states provide safe harbor for illegal immigrants accused or convicted of serious crimes, including felonies. That is not the case in Massachusetts, and the issue that went before the SJC applies specifically to undocumented immigrants wanted for deportation. ICE usually demands that local law enforcement steer clear of their actions — unless ICE finds it convenient to deputize local police to do their work for them.

In general, The Eagle prefers legislative action to the referendum process and supports ballot initiatives only when lawmakers fail to act on worthy measures. In this case, the Legislature has already acted by not advancing a bill from the governor that sought an end-run around an SJC ruling.

Other initiatives that were found to be constitutionally acceptable include the introduction of ranked-choice voting in state elections, an updating of state law requiring car manufacturers to provide diagnostic and repair information with vehicle owners and independent repair shops, and requiring gun owners to store their weapons in a gun safe ("Our Opinion: Ballot questions begin long journey," Eagle, Aug. 9). If some don't drop by the wayside, the critically important Nov. 3, 2020, election will be even more loaded.

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