BOSTON (CBS/AP) — Prosecutors, public defenders, and community groups in Massachusetts are suing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement over its policy of arresting people at courthouses on civil immigration matters.
Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan and Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins announced the lawsuit in a press conference Monday.
“The result of this fear that keeps people from exercising their right to come to court is that victims suffer in silence,” Ryan said. “This is an assault on our justice system.”
The federal lawsuit, believed to be the first of its kind in the country, is the latest fight between state and federal authorities over President Donald Trump’s stepped-up immigration efforts. Monday’s announcement comes days after federal prosecutors charged a judge and former court officer with obstruction of justice for allegedly helping a man wanted by federal immigration authorities escape a courthouse.
Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson says the lawsuit is frivolous and political. “It’s outrageous to think that we would have DA’s to prevent law enforcement from doing their job,” Hodgson said.
Rollins said she has watched “serious criminal cases against individuals accused of violent, heinous crimes grind to a halt” because of arrests by immigration agents.
Such courthouse arrests, which immigrant advocates say have increased across the country under Trump, have led to protests by lawyers representing immigrants and calls for an end to the policy from current and retired judges. Earlier this month, New York state courts officials barred immigration agents from making arrests inside courthouses without judicial warrants or orders.
“If somebody is coming into the court whether voluntarily or not and their illegal and a law enforcement agency wants them, that’s no different than the DEA or FBI wanting someone,” Hodgson said. “Why shouldn’t they be able to stay there in grab the person that they’re looking for?”
The Trump administration has said it’s only going to halls of justice for certain targets, like public safety threats, and that courthouses are among the safest places to arrest immigrants because people typically have to go through metal detectors.
The lawsuit seeks an injunction to prevent ICE officers from entering Massachusetts courthouses, or even from coming onto the front steps or parking lots.
“I am not asking nor am I intending to interfere with the federal government when they engage in an exercise of their lawful authority,” Rollins said. “I simply ask that the pay us the same respect and not interfere with ours.”
Former Homeland Security special agent and current author Eric Caron says civil arrests at courthouses are common practice. “It’s safe. It’s a safe environment for our officers,” said Caron.
He calls the lawsuit disingenuous and says prosecutors have several visa options available to keep illegal immigrants in the U.S. “These DAs understand there are procedures in place and they’ve been in place for many years if they have a victim or witness if they want to testify that are here illegally there’s procedures to follow, simple as that,” Caron said.
Lawyers said they don’t have data on how many cases have been disrupted by ICE arrests, but say immigration arrests are reported at courthouses across the state several times a week. Ryan said her office has seen two cases that were interrupted because someone needed in court disappeared during the day.
The complaint cites several cases of victims being too afraid to come forward because of the courthouse arrests. For example, immigrants who were duped into investing in a shell company have refused to bring a case against the fraudster to get their money back because they fear they could be arrested and deported if they have to show up in court, the lawsuit says.
“Our courts are places where individuals, regardless of income or influence or status must be able to seek justice, to exercise their constitutional rights, to seek safety from physical harm or compensation for economic harm,” said Wendy Wayne, director of the immigration impact unit at Massachusetts’ public defender agency, the Committee for Public Counsel Services.
ICE declined to comment on the lawsuit, but outlines reasons for courtroom arrests on its website.
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