Several senior ranking House Democrats threw their weight behind a proposal on Thursday to prohibit inmates from being used to build President Donald Trump's border wall as part of their efforts to provide a check on the White House's impact in Massachusetts.
The working group created by House Speaker Robert DeLeo to guide the House's response to the Trump administration also voted to recommend a bill that would essentially block state law enforcement from participating in a federal program to train local officers as immigration enforcement agents.
The Trump working group met for the first time Thursday, hosting a free-form discussion about the group's focus and how it can have an impact.
"One of the things that came up and we thought was really worthy of discussion was Rep. Cabral's efforts to rein in some of the outsoken volunteerism of a gentleman in his area who is making a lot of headlines," said House Majority Leader Ronald Mariano, who is leading the group with Speaker Pro Tempore Patricia Haddad.
Mariano was referring to Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson, who has proposed using inmates under his control as volunteer labor to help build Trump's promised wall along the Mexican border.
New Bedford Rep. Antonio Cabral filed legislation (H 3034) in response to Hodgson that would prohibit sheriffs from using inmates for labor outside of Massachusetts.
He also filed a bill (H 3033) that would prohibit any state money from being used to implement what is known as a 287G agreement with Immigration and Customs and Enforcement to train local law enforcement or correction officers in immigration law.
"Really, they become deputized ICE agents," Cabral said.
Bristol and Plymouth County sheriffs, along with the Department of Correction, have signed 287G agreements with ICE, according to Cabral, but have not yet sent any correction officers to South Carolina for training.
Federal authorities also prohibit federal tax dollars from being spent to implement the program, which Cabral said would have the effect of making any agreement unfulfillable.
The group voted unanimously to recommend both bills for swift action to the Judiciary Committee.
Mariano said he would draft a letter to the committee explaining their position, and the group agreed they would also suggest a "friendly amendment" to allow inmates to be used out of state, only with approval by the governor, in cases of national emergency or disaster, such as Hurrican Katrina.
The meeting took place as a group of senators are preparing to travel to Washington the week of April 24 to meet with members of Congress and the Trump administration to get a better handle on the probability and scope of proposed federal spending cuts.
Democrats have been deeply concerned by the potential local impact of spending cuts outlined in a budget blueprint released this year by the Trump administration that Rep. James Arciero noted would sharply pare back dollars that flow through the National Institutes of Health to Bay State hospitals and research facilities.
"If that happens and the block grant stuff does come down I think we all go look for jobs in gas stations. I'm going to work in a bakery," Mariano said.
The Quincy Democrat conceded he felt like he was "swimming with a rudder" as he worked with his co-chair Haddad to chart a course for the group, but left the meeting feeling better about the direction it would take.
Both Mariano and Haddad said they feel the group can be helpful to committee chairs who must sift through hundreds of bills by flagging legislation that deserves quick attention because of what's happening on the federal level.
"What I didn't want this to turn into was we come in here and bash everybody and go home," Mariano said. "There has to be a reason for us being here and if we can identify some holes and work to plug some of them then this is really worthwhile. Beyond that, we're just whistling in the dark. Donald Trump's not worried about what we're sitting here doing."
In addition to Mariano, Haddad, Cabral and Arciero, Reps. Byron Rushing, James Murphy, Kate Hogan, and Jeff Sanchez all attended Thursday's meeting.
Mariano said group will likely gather again soon after the House budget debate at the end of the month with a more formal agenda. The Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, the ACLU, the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation and the Committee for Public Counsel Services have all expressed a desire to present to the group.
One area that could become the group's next focus, according to members, is internet privacy.
Haddad has filed one of several bills written in response to legislation passed by Congress and signed by Trump that removes Obama-era protections against internet providers selling browser histories and other customer data to advertisers.
Haddad's bill would require customers to opt into an agreement to sell their personal information, and Sanchez said several amendments to the House budget have also been filed to address the topic.
Mariano said the ACLU expressed an interest in presenting to the group on the topic. "I don't think it's something we're going to do in the budget. There are a lot of ramifications, and it would be good to hear what everyone has to say," he said.