BOSTON — A judge on Thursday blocked federal immigration authorities from arresting certain people suspected of living in the country illegally at Massachusetts courthouses while a lawsuit challenging the practice plays out.
U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani's decision bars U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement from arresting people for civil immigration violations as they are arriving at, leaving or inside a courthouse.
The ruling came in a case brought by prosecutors in two of Massachusetts' largest counties and public defenders, who say such arrests are disrupting the criminal justice system because defendants, witnesses and others are too afraid to come to court.
"This is a really significant victory," said Oren Nimini of Lawyers for Civil Rights, one of the attorneys who filed the lawsuit. "It's good protection for immigrant communities in Massachusetts, but also a good message to immigration authorities who have been running rampant over people's civil rights over the last two years," he said.
John Mohan, an ICE spokesman, said in an email that the agency is reviewing the court's decision and has no further comment.
“While ICE respects that the court has issued its ruling, we are currently reviewing the court’s decision. At this time, we have no direct comment on the matter.”
Courthouse arrests have angered lawyers, immigration advocates and even some judges, who want ICE to make courthouses "sensitive locations" generally free from immigration enforcement. While such arrests happened under President Barack Obama, lawyers say they've seen an uptick under President Donald Trump.
Talwani granted a preliminary injunction that will not only protect immigrants inside courts, but those who are in courthouse parking lots or steps, while the lawsuit goes forward, Nimini said. It's the first judicial ruling in the country to halt such immigration arrests across a state, he said.
New York state courts officials have also barred immigration agents from making arrests inside courthouses without judicial warrants or orders.
Under Talwani's ruling, immigration authorities can still arrest people on civil immigration violations if the person is already in state or federal custody, like when a defendant is brought from a jail to a court hearing. It also doesn't prevent ICE from making criminal arrests.
Trump has slammed the two prosecutors who brought the case, calling Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins and Middlesex County District Attorney Marian Ryan "people that probably don't mind crime."
"They are protecting people that in many cases, and certainly not in all cases, but in many cases are very dangerous people and you say why? What are they doing this for? What's the game?" Trump said in May.
Rollins, who became the top prosecutor for Boston and surrounding communities in January, has said some cases against people accused of "heinous crimes" have grind to a halt because of civil immigration arrests.
Rollins said in an emailed statement Thursday that she is "thrilled" with the ruling. Ryan called the decision a "critical step in the right direction" for Massachusetts and said it should be a model for the rest of the country.
"I’m thrilled with today’s ruling. As my staff and I closely review the decision, we look forward to continuing our vital work in courthouses across Suffolk County that will be positively impacted by today’s ruling. I join DA Ryan, CPCS, and the Chelsea Collaborative in celebrating this moment, and look forward to addressing the media in the coming days to discuss what this important ruling means for the communities we serve."
The Trump administration has said courthouses are some of the safest places for agents to make arrests because people typically need to go through metal detectors.
ICE says it's focused on convicted criminals, gang members and public safety threats as well as immigrants who have been previously deported or ordered to leave. The agency says family, friends and witnesses in court won't be arrested unless there are "special circumstances," like when they pose a threat to public safety.
The lawsuit was filed days after federal prosecutors in Massachusetts charged a state court judge with helping a man who was living in the U.S. illegally to sneak out the back door of the courthouse to evade a waiting immigration agent. The judge's attorney has called her prosecution political and says she's innocent.
Middlesex County District Attorney Marian Ryan told Boston 25 News:
"Today our federal court has recognized the irreparable harm being caused by ICE’s disruptive policy of using our courthouses to conduct civil arrests. I am very pleased by today’s decision and I again want to thank our partners, District Attorney Rollins, CPCS and the Chelsea Collaborative. In Massachusetts, we are today, as we always have been, leaders in protecting the most vulnerable members of our community. This decision reaffirms that every person in our Commonwealth should be able to seek justice in our courts without fear or hesitation. The granting of this injunction is a critical step in the right direction for our Commonwealth and it should be a model for our nation."
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