Regional ICE director tamps down talk of big SWAT operation

Lyons aims to set record straight on immigration enforcement in Massachusetts

THE HEAD OF BOSTON’S local immigration enforcement office said there will be no SWAT-like agents deployed to Massachusetts, despite recent news reports 

In a wide-ranging interview about immigration enforcement in the Bay State, Todd Lyons, the acting director of regional field office for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said the agency is interested in detaining immigrants with criminal charges and convictions, and that a fresh deployment of Customs and Border Protections employees to Massachusetts will be working on generic ICE enforcement operations.  

Last week, the New York Times reported that US Customs and Border Protection plans to deploy 100 officers to arrest undocumented immigrants in cities that have so-called sanctuary policies, including Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, Detroit, and New Orleans. An elite special operations SWAT team within the agency, called BORTEC, would also be deployed, the Times reported. 

The news has sparked fear of raids on homes the immigrant community, and drawn criticism from public officials, including Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh.  

Claims that a SWAT-like force within Border Protection are coming to Massachusetts are untrue, said Lyons. “I can definitively say none of those assets have been deployed in Massachusetts,” he said. “My major focus and concern is to dispel that fear out there that there are going to be heavily armored tanks and tactical soldiers roaming the streets of Boston, Chelsea, Dorchester, and that’s just not the case.”  

Lyons was also critical “sanctuary” policies that limit the cooperation of local law enforcement agencies with immigration authorities, arguing that they make it more difficult to track down immigrants wanted for serious offenses and leave undocumented immigrants with no criminal history involvement more vulnerable to being caught up in enforcement actions. 

He said there are only about 300 immigrants with criminal charges or convictions currently being detained by the agency in Massachusetts, but a much larger number of undocumented immigrants in the state – about 40,000 — who are being monitored.  

Lyons said officers actively track that much larger number of cases where immigrants have been allowed to remain free on something called a “stay on an order of recognizance,” which means they can remain in their homes, but check in with ICE regularly at the Burlington office.   

He said the office is trying to clarify to the public that they’re really most interested in focusing on “public safety threats,” or people who have been charged with or convicted of crimes. The agency is also interested in people who have committed crimes, been deported, but then returned to the US 

The 300 people being detained are held in Plymouth and Bristol county jails, which have contracts with ICE to hold immigrants. That number has remained static over the past year, the office says.  

Making arrests of those deemed a public safety danger, Lyons said, has become more of a challenge since a 2017 Supreme Judicial Court decision.  

In Lunn vs. Commonwealth, the SJC ruled that local law enforcement officials do not have authority, under state law, to detain an individual who is free to leave a jail based only on a federal immigration official request, in the form of an administrative warrant called a detainer. Lyons also said that the Boston Trust Act, which was recently tightened by the City Council to limit communication between the Boston Police Department and ICE, and other “sanctuary” policies have created issues for the agency.  

“We’ve seen an uptick in criminal alien releases since recent…sanctuary policies like the Boston Trust Act, and some Massachusetts Supreme Court decisions like the Lunn decision, where state and local agencies aren’t allowed to hold someone on an immigration detainer. So we’re seeing a lot more of the criminal element released back to the street,” said Lyons, adding that this is specifically people with prior convictions and pending criminal charges. 

Lyons argues that the court decision doesn’t block local law enforcement from picking up the phone when an undocumented immigrant is released from custody.  

“Nothing says that a law enforcement agency can’t call us and say, Hey, look, if this person’s going to be bonding out within the next four hours, do you want to come over?”  

While he’s right that the SJC ruling doesn’t prevent such local cooperation, the Trust Act does, at least in Boston. Several other communities, including Somerville and Chelsea, have similar immigrant protections on the books.  

ICE’s Boston division, which oversees Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, made 2,469 administrative arrests in fiscal year 2019, down 15 percent from a previous year. ICE has said that is a result of sanctuary policies  

Lyons said Massachusetts arrests have been further lowered as a result of a lawsuit filed by Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan and Rollins, the Suffolk DA. In June, the two prosecutors won a preliminary injunction that bars ICE from detaining people in and around county courthouses, something the agency is trying to overturn 

Ryan, Rollins, and advocates had said there were concerns about immigrants with no criminal background, and some who were serving as witnesses or undergoing trial being deported. For the DAs, it was especially an issue because ICE had deported individuals undergoing court proceedings. In some cases, they had to be extradited from other countries in order to continue their cases.  

Ryan and Rollins say that they’re fine with criminals being deported, but only after they have had their day in court, been convicted, sentenced, and served their time here 

Lyons said the regional ICE office has never detained someone who wasn’t wanted for a criminal offense. 

“There’s not one incident where a witness, a victim, someone who is reporting a crime, someone going for a business license, someone going in for a marriage license was detained,” he said. “ICE only conducts targeted operations at the courthouse of the individual we’re looking for. We don’t roam the halls and ask people, ‘what’s your status? 

Instead of relying on information from local jails and detaining people at county courthouses, the agency has found workarounds. ICE has access to the National Crime Information Center, and the FBI’s database, which it relies heavily on to acquire information in Massachusetts.  

Sometimes the agency gets alerted someone is fingerprinted following an arrest or at a border crossing, Lyons said. “So then we see at one point, either for a legal reason, like getting a visa, being admitted into the country, or for a criminal reason, like they’ve been arrested before,” he said.  

But sometimes this isn’t enough, so ICE continues to issue detainers, and is launching a campaign to find those Lyons described as “dangerous individuals,” and inform the public. In January, for instance, the office issued 200 immigration detainers in Massachusetts. No municipalities have followed through on them by holding individuals, he claimed.  

The office has begun publishing lists of wanted undocumented immigrants facing criminal charges. The most recent list was released on Wednesday, which named seven people, with the names of two people crossed off who had been detained since the effort began a week ago 

Lyons said the arrival of new border protection agents will help fill a resource vacuum left by ICE agents who were sent to Texas more than a year ago to deal with the border crisis.  

The local branch of ICE does have special operations teams similar to those mentioned in the recent New York Times story, Lyons said, but they already exist within Massachusetts to serve high-risk warrants and conduct traffic stops.  

A high-level federal immigration agency source said on Friday that fewer than 10 new Customs and Border Protection agents have been assigned to the Boston office. 

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

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.

Asked if the immigrant community should be concerned about SWAT-like teams knocking on doors at 4 a.m., Lyons said, “it’s a valid concern, but only because of the lack of cooperation.” He said that the agency would much rather detain people who are already in local jails or court houses, because of the reduced danger to the public or agents when making arrests in those settings  

“When agencies and other jurisdictions don’t cooperate with us, we do have to go out into the community,” Lyons said. That in itself, he says, puts other immigrants who might be associated with the individual being targeted at risk. “We’re going to encounter people, and we’re going to ID them. People who might be law-abiding, undocumented people here just going about their business. You now run the chance of running into an immigration officer if youre with this person wanted by ICE.