Local officials and advocates are condemning the Trump administration’s decision to send federal border patrol agents to Boston and other so-called sanctuary cities in coming weeks to support immigration enforcement, calling the move an intimidation tactic that could harm public safety.
“None of this makes us safer,” said Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins.
The initiative, she said, aims “to strike fear and terror throughout our immigrant communities."
Representative Ayanna Pressley, a Boston Democrat, said the decision to bring border patrol agents to the city “serves only to further the Trump administration’s agenda to intimidate and retaliate against cities that uphold the dignity and humanity of our immigrant neighbors.”
Pressley said, “We will not stand for this. Where this administration chooses cruelty, the City of Boston will choose compassion.”
And Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh said that “Policies aimed at sowing division and fear are ultimately counterproductive and harmful not merely to the families and individuals who are targeted but to the broader community of which we are all a part.”
The threat is seen as an act of retaliation against cities that protect undocumented immigrants, said Matthew Segal, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.
“It’s a very transparent retaliation against local governments for refusing to do the Trump administration’s bidding,” Segal said.
“What we need — and have needed for a long time — is a sound, rational national immigration policy rooted in both compassion and common sense,” he said.
The Department of Homeland Security said on Friday that border agents will be deployed to Boston from February through May. That confirmation followed The New York Times report that cities targeted under the administration’s plan include New York, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Houston, New Orleans, Detroit and Newark, N.J.
Among the agents being deployed are members of an elite tactical unit that acts essentially as the SWAT team of the border patrol, the Times reported.
While Customs & Border Protection officers have a presence at Logan International Airport and in the Seaport District, Boston is not home to any border patrol agents. The closest stations for such agents are in northern New England, along the Canadian border, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
Segal said the deployment of a tactical team to enforce civil immigration law may be unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits the use of excessive force by law enforcement.
That prohibition extends to law enforcement creating the circumstances where force would needlessly occur, he said. The use of SWAT-like tactical teams could lead to unnecessarily violent encounters in which immigrants are injured.
“This is a dangerous move that the Trump administration is playing," Segal said.
Acting Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Matthew T. Albence said his agency is using Customs and Border Protection “to supplement enforcement activity in response to the resource challenges stemming from sanctuary city policies.”
There’s no official definition of a sanctuary city, but such municipalities generally do not allow their police departments to help ICE deport immigrants.
In his statement, Albence did not detail how the border patrol agents would be used in Boston, and ICE said it does not “discuss planned operations or specific resource allocation.”
“As we have noted for years, in jurisdictions where we are not allowed to assume custody of aliens from jails, our officers are forced to make at-large arrests of criminal aliens who have been released into communities,” Albence said.
"This effort requires a significant amount of additional time and resources. When sanctuary cities release these criminals back to the street, it increases the occurrence of preventable crimes, and more importantly, preventable victims,” he said.
Rollins, who was one of two Massachusetts district attorneys last year to legally challenge civil courthouse arrests by immigration agents, suggested the move could have a chilling effect on community cooperation with police.
“It’s challenging enough for any member of our community to come forward to law enforcement when they have been a victim or witness to a crime," she said. " When individuals are too frightened to speak with police and prosecutors, to show up in court to provide testimony, to seek the protection of the law, or to have their day in court, we are all less safe.”
A spokeswoman for Republican Governor Charlie Baker was less critical of the decision, but said his administration "believes federal law enforcement should focus on taking dangerous criminals off the streets and has proposed legislation to allow local and state law enforcement to work with federal officials to detain individuals convicted of violent crimes.”
President Trump has often railed against sanctuary cities and has made combating illegal immigration a top priority, often through controversial policies, such as family separations at the border with Mexico, a push to build a wall along that border, and restrictions on foreigners from some countries seeking to enter the United States.
A spokesman for US Customs & Border Protection told the Times the agency was deploying 100 officers to work with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which conducts arrests in the interior of the country, “in order to enhance the integrity of the immigration system, protect public safety, and strengthen our national security.” It was not immediately clear how many border patrol agents would be sent to Boston.
Eva Millona, the executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, said advocates are worried "about the collateral damage and the separation of families. It’s a tactic that doesn’t really help anyone.”
She called on state lawmakers to pass the Safe Communities Act.
If passed, that legislation would impose rules on state and local law enforcement, including when police can inquire about citizenship status; when police can send notifications to US immigration officials; and the prohibition of agreements allowing local police to serve as federal immigration agents, according to the MIRA Coalition website.
“Everyone who resides in the US, regardless of where they were born, they have rights under the Constitution,” she said.
Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights in Boston, said the decision to send border patrol agents threatens to destabilize communities, families, and children, "and push people deeper into the shadows.”
“This is a fundamentally racist policy, and yet another manifestation of the Trump administration’s improper targeting of immigrants it deems undesirable,” Espinoza-Madrigal said.
In Newton, which declared itself a sanctuary city in 2017, Mayor Ruthanne Fuller said the federal decision to target immigrants based solely on their legal status is particularly disturbing as the US Census begins its count in six weeks.
“Newton is a safe city, and we are committed to making all residents, workers and visitors feel safe regardless of their immigration status,” Fuller said.
Dispatching border patrol agents to Boston would represent “an incredible waste of resources,” said Phil Torrey, director of the Crimmigration Clinic at Harvard Law School.
The tactical unit, Torrey said, is “designed for counterterrorism-type operations or large safety concerns like the Super Bowl.”
It typically hasn’t been used for local enforcement efforts, he said.
“It’s yet another example of the Trump administration using scare tactics on municipalities that don’t abide by detainers,” Torrey said.
Detainers are requests from federal authorities for law enforcement to hold an individual in custody. Boston, Torrey said, has a policy that states Boston police are not authorized to abide by a request to hold someone solely for immigration purposes.
In 2017, the state Supreme Judicial Court ruled that local law enforcement officials cannot hold a person who is wanted solely for immigration violations, which are civil, not criminal infractions.
Todd M. Lyons, acting field officer director of ICE’s enforcement and removal operations in Boston, said the court’s decision “may restrict law enforcement agencies in the Commonwealth from honoring immigration detainers, [but] the law does not limit local agencies from working with ICE to notify us of the release of criminal aliens.”
But, according to Torrey, sanctuary city policies are important to community policing efforts and if federal government undermines that dynamic, it could make the job of local law enforcement officials more difficult.
“It’s clearly a retaliatory measure,” he said.
Material from The Associated Press was included in this report.
Danny McDonald can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald. Travis Andersen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe. John Hilliard can be reached at email@example.com.