Massachusetts High Court: Let Illegals Go

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By Andy Metzger

BOSTON — After the state’s highest court ruled there is no authority for officials to hold immigrants solely at the request of federal authorities, three Republican House members are working to gather momentum behind legalizing those types of detentions.

In a ruling hailed by civil liberties advocates that ends a longstanding immigration enforcement practice, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court declared Monday that current state law “provides no authority for Massachusetts court officers to arrest and hold an individual solely on the basis of a Federal civil immigration detainer, beyond the time that the individual would otherwise be entitled to be released from State custody.”

State Representative James Lyons, an Andover Republican, said he is working with Republican Representatives Marc Lombardo of Billerica, and Shaunna O’Connell of Taunton to gather co-sponsors on a bill he plans to file Tuesday or Wednesday.

Lyons said the bill would be “straightforward,” giving Massachusetts police and court officers the power to arrest someone on a civil immigration warrant.

“People are concerned about the rule of law,” Lyons told the News Service. Asked about how he thought the bill would fare in the Democrat-controlled Legislature, Lyons said, “Beacon Hill, I can’t predict what’s going on up there.”

While the high court ruling focused on court officers, advocates said the opinion prohibits any state official from keeping someone jailed solely at the request of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

“Going forward, nobody in Massachusetts should be held on an immigration detainer unless the Legislature were to attempt to change that,” said Emma Winger, Immigration Impact Unit staff attorney for the Committee on Public Counsel Services, who argued the case before the Supreme Judicial Court in April.

“It applies to anybody with arrest authority,” said Laura Rotolo, staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. Rotolo said that while many jurisdictions have limited their cooperation with ICE, the SJC is the first state high court to rule against ICE detainers.

Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson said the decision will make people more vulnerable to crime in Massachusetts.

“I wouldn’t say it makes Massachusetts a sanctuary state. I think it makes Massachusetts more vulnerable — the people who live here and people who visit here — more vulnerable to become victims of crime, and also a further message to people throughout the country who are here illegally that we’re the place you want to come,” Hodgson said.

Working to fulfill a campaign pledge, President Donald Trump has sought to heighten border security and dished out scorn on jurisdictions that provide “sanctuary” to immigrants in the country illegally. Massachusetts House Democrats have formed a working group to respond to the Trump administration’s policies in Massachusetts.

The SJC case concerned Sreynuon Lunn, who was born to Cambodian parents in a Thai refugee camp and entered the United States as a seven-month-old in 1985. Lunn was ordered deported after racking up a criminal record in the early 2000s.

According to the Suffolk District Attorney’s Office, Lunn was then arrested last October for allegedly taking cash from a homeless man on Boston’s Canal Street, but the victim didn’t show up for the trial. The charges were dismissed, but Lunn was held by the Boston Municipal Court for ICE to pick him up.

“Lunn was physically detained in a holding cell, against his will, for several hours,” read the SJC decision, which did not give any one justice credit for authorship. “He was otherwise entitled to be free, as no criminal charges were then pending against him and there was no other basis under Massachusetts law to hold him. The sole basis for holding him was the civil immigration detainer.”

The ACLU worked to free Lunn from federal custody and ICE released him, according to Rotolo, who said Lunn had no country to be sent to because “no country accepts him as a national.”

According to the office of Attorney General Maura Healey, the SJC opinion tracks the arguments her office laid out in court, including that the decision should be left to the Legislature.

“Today’s decision is a victory for the rule of law and smart immigration and criminal justice policies, and a rejection of anti-immigrant policies that have stoked fear in communities across the country. As my office argued in this case, Massachusetts law protects our residents from illegal detention and prevents the federal government from forcing local law enforcement to make decisions contrary to the public safety interests of their communities,” Healey said in a statement.

Rotolo said she did not think the SJC decision — which carries the power of law — needs “any further codification” by the Legislature, but she said that legislation (S 1305/H 3269) pending before committee would add further protections for people in Massachusetts.

According to a letter from the bill’s sponsors, Acton state Senator Jamie Eldridge and Lawrence state Representative Juana Matias, both Democrats, the legislation would give due process rights to detained immigrants, and prohibit “collaboration agreements between the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and law enforcement agencies that deputize state and local officers as immigration agents.”