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ICE Asks Court to Let Agency Resume Courthouse Immigration Arrests in Massachusetts

— December 18, 2019

ICE argues that Congress set no limit on its authority to carry out arrests in state courthouses.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) wants a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit, allowing the agency to resume making arrests inside Massachusetts courthouses.

According to, the lawsuit itself was filed by two Massachusetts district attorneys: Middlesex D.A. Marian Ryan and her counterpart in Suffolk County, Rachael Rollins. Both women say that ICE’s practice of picking up immigrants from court has had a net-negative impact on criminal cases, with undocumented witnesses refusing to provide testimony and defendants skipping court dates. Migrants, suggest Rollins and Ryan, simply won’t participate in proceedings if there’s a chance they might be deported afterward.

However, ICE says the choice isn’t one for judges to make. And to that end, the agency has petitioned U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals to dismiss the lawsuit and lift outstanding injunctions on ICE’s arrest authorities.

“Congress has spoken completely let to ICE’s arrest authority and provided absolutely no limitations on courthouse arrests,” the agency said in its motion.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court building in Boston. Image via Swampyank/Wikimedia Commons. (CCA-BY-3.0)

But until the suit is resolved or dismissed, ICE can’t carry out warrants or detain migrants in Massachusetts courthouses. In June, U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani issued an injunction ordering the agency to immediately cease its practice of picking up undocumented immigrants attending proceedings.

At the time, Oren Nimni—an attorney with Boston-based Lawyers for Civil Rights—told WBUR that the injunction was a big victory for immigration advocates.

“ICE has been running rampant across courthouses, stalking immigrants as they go in to get restraining orders against abusive partners or deal with other civil or criminal matters, and it’s been taking a huge toll on immigrant communities,” Nimni said.

ICE, though, explained its disagreement in the motion to dismiss. The agency says that curtailing its wide-ranging authority can exacerbate threats to public safety and national security.

“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has long exercised its arrest authority in and around courthouses given its strong interest in removing aliens who engage in criminal activity, are in gangs, are national security threats, or have already had final judgments issued rendering them removable,” ICE said.

While ICE typically doesn’t perform arrests in certain “sensitive” zones—like schools or churches—they’ve exercised little such restrain in state courthouses. In some cases, the agency has set up “sting” marriage interviews in courthouses and civil offices, designed to detain and deport undocumented individuals attempting to legally procure green cards and residency permits.

ICE maintains that making arrests in controlled environments—like a courthouse—reduces the risk of violent confrontation, for migrants and officers alike.

Nevertheless, Rollins says ICE hasn’t done its job effectively—in some cases, she says ICE deported individuals facing criminal charges on civil immigration offenses. To fulfill her own criminal cases, Rollins had to request extradition back to the United States.

“It is local prosecutors who are holding violent, criminal offenders accountable. My office has had to find and return to Suffolk County violent criminals to stand trial,” Rollins said. “These are individuals whom ICE had deported for a civil, immigration infraction prior to their criminal trials. Their deportations by ICE did nothing to keep our community safe, did not provide justice for victims, and were done without notifying us or our victims.”


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