Middlesex and Suffolk DAs sue ICE

Top state prosecutors want federal agents out of courthouses

This story has been updated as of 5:25 p.m.

IN AN UNPRECEDENTED MOVE,the Middlesex and Suffolk County district attorneys filed a lawsuit in US District Court on Monday seeking to block access of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to courthouse properties in Massachusetts.   

Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan and Suffolk County DA Rachael Rollins announced their effort to halt the interference of ICE agents in court proceedings on Monday morning in conjunction with the Committee for Public Counsel Services, which provides legal representation in the state for those unable to afford an attorney. The advocacy group Chelsea Collaborative is also part of the suit.   

While the involvement of the two district attorneys is garnering the lion’s share of public attention, the actual trial work will be handled by attorneys working for Lawyers for Civil Rights and the law firm Goodwin Procter. The legal work will be provided pro bono. 

Ryan, Rollins, and the organizations are asking the court to order federal immigration enforcement officials to stop searching for people with civil immigration violation warrants on court property. They claim ICE’s actions are a violation of the Tenth Amendment, which upholds state’s rights 

The lawsuit said ICE has decided to “flout” common-law privilege against civil courthouse arrests and “commandeer” the state courts for federal immigration purposes. The complaint said noncitizen witnesses often do not appear for fear of arrest or deportation, and criminal defendants refuse to appear in court, choosing to default rather than risk detention and removal by ICE. 

ICE spokesman John Mohan declined to comment on the specifics of the case, but he pointed to a section of the agency’s website where its policy on courthouse arrests is spelled out. 

Previously, ICE has said its officers resort to courthouse arrests to reduce safety risks to the public. In a January 2018 directive, former ICE acting director Thomas Homan wrote that courthouse arrests are often necessitated by the unwillingness of jurisdictions to cooperate with ICE in the transfer of custody of “aliens” from their prisons and jails.  

While some other state courts have booted ICE officials from their courthouses, this is the first time a district attorney’s office has filed suit against the Department of Homeland Security or ICE over the presence of agents at courthouses. 

“This lawsuit is groundbreaking. It is the first lawsuit of its kind filed nationally,” said Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director for Lawyers for Civil Rights.  

Ryan, the Middlesex DA, said her office began prep work on the lawsuit in 2017 when arrests at state courthouses first started to accelerate. She said the ICE policy on courthouse arrests is not enhancing public safety. “That is not justice and not one person in this Commonwealth is safer because of that practice,” she said at a press conference, which was held at the Goodwin Procter law office. 

Ryan and Rollins are asking the court for an order vacating ICE’s January 2018 directive, which formalized its policy toward civil immigration enforcement inside federal, state, and local courthouses. The directive states that ICE’s courthouse arrests will include actions against specific immigrants with criminal convictions, gang members, and public safety threats.  

Advocates say that policy allows agents to arrest noncitizens who are just visiting a courthouse to support a family member or to testify as a witness to a crime. Efforts to detain undocumented immigrants have increased significantly under President Donald Trump.

Rollins said that ICE is overstepping its reach and, by targeting noncitizens who may be witnesses to crimes, making it more difficult for prosecutors to bring criminals to justice.  

“Who is responsible for telling that victim that their case will not be moving forward? That we don’t know where their rapist is? That they will never get a chance to confront the individual accused of hurting them or their loved ones? ICE isn’t making those phone calls. ICE isn’t sitting with those victims. We are, as DAs,” she said. 

The lawsuit comes less than a week after a federal grand jury in Boston  indicted Newton District Court Judge Shelley Richmond Joseph and a now retiredcourt officer on obstruction of justice charges for allegedly helping an undocumented immigrant evade an ICE agent.   

The man in question was Jose Medina-Perez, a Dominican national who had entered the country illegally, and had been arrested by Newton police on drug possession charges and being a fugitive from justice in Pennsylvania.   

According to the indictment, a detainer had been placed by ICE, with an officer dispatched to the courthouse. US Attorney Andrew Lelling claims that Shelley Joseph and the court officerconspired to let Medina-Perez out a back door when they realized the agent was in the courthouse.  

Ryan said the lawsuit against ICE is unrelated to the Lelling prosecution of Joseph.  

Rollins has also been monitoring the situation closely. In March, she released a 65-page memo that stated her staff would report any interactions with federal immigration authorities to her, along with any instances of ICE agents questioning or apprehending people near or at Suffolk County courthouses.  

Chelsea Collaborative members say they have moved mediations with immigrants that typically would take place in courthouses to other non-court locations. Gladys Vega, the executive director of the advocacy group, said the Chelsea Police Department helps to mediate those disputes outside of courthouses. “They’re even collecting claims at people’s houses because they won’t go to court,” she said.  

Ryan filed an amicus letter with the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court last year, urging the court to preserve the right of all persons to access courts without fear of civil arrest by ICE on unrelated immigration matters. The court did not take any action. In September, however, the SJC denied a petition that would have barred federal immigration officers from making arrests in or near courthouses.  

Wendy Wayne, an attorney with the Committee for Public Counsel Services, said the SJC decision “acknowledged that ICE arrests were impeding the administration of justice in the courthouses but also found that the remedy we sought was better suited to federal court.” The ruling led to the filing of Monday’s lawsuit, she said 

The lawsuit is likely to make Massachusetts ground zero in the battle over ICE’s increasing use of courthouse arrests.   

New York state courts last week announced a directive that banned ICE agents from arresting undocumented immigrants in their buildings without a warrant signed by a judge.   

Wayne said her office noticed a sharp uptick in ICE arrests in and around Massachusetts courthouses two years ago. At the press event she listed a number of instances where noncitizens were detained and court interpreters allegedly threatened by ICE agents for not providing translations of interactions between attorneys and clients.  

A spokeswoman for Attorney General Maura Healey’s office applauded the lawsuit, saying ICE’s actions deter victims and witnesses from coming forward and are “preventing our justice system from working properly.”  

Martin Healy, chief legal counsel and chief operating officer of the Massachusetts Bar Association, also backed the lawsuit. “As demonstrated by the disruptions cited by both state prosecutors and public defenders, this strategy is not only interfering with the proper administration of justice, but also impeding the state’s interest in enforcing its rule of law and chilling access to justice for defendants, witnesses, and others with business before the state courts,” he said in a statement. 

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.