Suffolk County breakup with ICE a mixed bag
Immigration officials, advocates both wary of decision
The number of county jails in Massachusetts that have contracts to hold detainees for federal immigration authorities is about to go down to three. Suffolk County Sheriff Steven Tompkins announced Tuesday evening the department is ending its contract with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
About 200 immigrants who are waiting for immigration court hearings, as well as those who have lost hearings and are waiting to be deported, are housed at the Suffolk County jail. Some are gang members and criminals with convictions, but others have no prior record, and are being detained solely because of their immigration status.
Tompkins insists the severing of ties with ICE has nothing to do with immigration politics. He says he needs to make room for the provision of rehabilitation services to women who will be transferred to the 1,200-bed South Bay House of Correction beginning this week from Essex, Norfolk, and Plymouth counties. About 100 women are housed there now, and up to 250 more will be transferred soon.
“This is not about ICE, this is not about Trump, this is not about the federal government, this is about saving lives,” Tompkins said.
The South End correctional facility has borne the brunt of immigration protests this summer, with almost 1,000 Jewish activists and anti-detention protesters marching to the jail in protest of President Trump’s immigrant detention policies. Eighteen people were arrested and later released.
Todd Lyons, the ICE New England field office deputy director, said his agency has paid the jail $117 million since 2003. Tompkins, however, said his office hasn’t received any of the money for holding ICE detainees since 2009, when all of the funds were diverted to the state’s general fund.
The move by Tompkins leaves just Bristol, Plymouth, and Franklin counties with ICE contracts.
“This is going to have a huge impact on our day-to-day operations,” Lyons told the Boston Herald, citing the jail’s proximity to the airport and federal immigration court in Boston.
Immigrant advocates are treading carefully in proclaiming victory on the ending of the contract. One less open facility often just means that other jails will attempt to acquire the contract. It also means that the families and attorneys of detainees will have to travel longer distances to meet with them. In addition to capacity at the Plymouth, Bristol, and Franklin county jails, federal authorities can send detainees to two other ICE-contracted jails — one in New Hampshire and the other in Rhode Island.“One of the concerns is people might be sent to other detention facilities in states that are far from their families and where they have less support and immigration courts are less likely to grant them relief,” said Oren Nimni, an attorney with Lawyers for Civil Rights
Carol Rose, the executive director of the America Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said she is hoping the decision presents an opportunity “for ICE to release needlessly-detained people.”