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

But the Boston Herald is describing Tompkins’ decision as “the latest clash between Massachusetts liberal pols and ICE.”

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. 

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.

“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.”