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Federal court overturns order blocking ICE arrests in Mass. courthouses

Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins (left) and Middlesex County District Attorney Marian Ryan have criticized ICE's attempts to arrest people at state courthouses.
Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins (left) and Middlesex County District Attorney Marian Ryan have criticized ICE's attempts to arrest people at state courthouses.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

A federal appeals court on Tuesday overturned a judge’s order that had temporarily blocked federal immigration agents from making civil arrests at Massachusetts courthouses.

The First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston ruled that a judge abused her discretion in June 2019 when she granted a preliminary injunction blocking such arrests, based on her finding that Middlesex District Attorney Marian T. Ryan, Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins, public defenders, and immigration advocates were likely to win a lawsuit they brought against Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The suit, filed in April 2019, alleged that ICE has no authority to search state courthouses for people facing civil immigration violation warrants. But the appeals court held that ICE has wide authority to conduct civil arrests and concluded that state law is vague on the matter.

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The court wrote that the plaintiffs “have so far failed to show they are likely to succeed in arguing that ICE lacks statutory authority to conduct such arrests in Massachusetts.”

Khaalid Walls, a spokesman for ICE, declined to comment on the ruling because the case was remanded to a lower court, where it is still pending. Through a spokeswoman, US Attorney Andrew E. Lelling also declined to comment.

The district attorneys who joined the suit expressed disappointment about the ruling but vowed to fight on.

“We will review and consider all of our options and move forward in a way that honors the people of Suffolk County, their families and basic human and civil rights,” Rollins said in a statement. “We are absolutely on the right side of justice here. It is never a loss when you are fighting for human rights, justice, and building a safer community.”

In a statement, Ryan said she would “continue to vigorously pursue all of our legal options to preserve” the protection of the court.

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“During the past 14 months while the preliminary injunction has been in place, that right has been guaranteed,” Ryan said. “Today’s decision by the United States Court of Appeals, which seeks to end that protection, is a disappointment.”

The ruling overturned a preliminary injunction that US District Judge Indira Talwani granted last year to stop ICE “from civilly arresting parties, witnesses, and others attending Massachusetts courthouses on official business while they are going to, attending, or leaving the courthouses.”

Rollins and Ryan filed the lawsuit less than a week after Newton District Court Judge Shelley M. Richmond Joseph and a court officer were indicted for allegedly helping an undocumented immigrant facing drug and fugitive charges evade an ICE officer. Ryan said at the time that the suit had been in the works for more than a year and was not connected to the Newton case.

The district attorneys initiated the case with the Committee for Public Counsel Services, the state agency that provides defense lawyers for low-income defendants, and the Chelsea Collaborative, a human services provider in Chelsea, where many Mexican and Central American immigrants live.

Wendy S. Wayne, director of the Immigration Impact Unit at the Committee for Public Counsel Services, pledged that the effort would continue.

“We are obviously disappointed but are still reviewing the decision and exploring our next steps,” Wayne said in a statement. “We will continue to fight to maintain the sanctity of the courts and the ability of our clients to access justice in Massachusetts courthouses.”

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Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights, which represents the Chelsea Collaborative in the lawsuit, stressed that the ruling “is only a preliminary decision that sends the case back to the District Court in Boston for further proceedings.”

He suggested that the case is still winnable with the right evidence.

“In returning the case to the District Court, the First Circuit noted gaps in the factual record — particularly regarding Massachusetts’ policy on courthouse arrests — and found that ’the manner in which [this gap] is filled could affect the outcome of this case,’ " Espinoza-Madrigal said in a statement.

According to the lawsuit, immigrants in Chelsea are so afraid of ICE they have refused to help authorities prosecute a pastor who embezzled $140,000 in church donations, challenge eviction notices by abusive landlords, or sue employers who garnish or deny wages in violation of federal laws.

Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington, who is not involved in the case but has publicly backed the effort, said she continues “to support my colleagues in fighting against the federal government’s overreach.”

“ICE agents should not be interfering and undermining the work of local law enforcement,” Harrington said in a statement. “Intimidating, arresting, and deporting people before their cases are heard or before they receive the protection they seek erodes the public’s trust that our justice system is fair and equitable.”


Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox. Shelley Murphy can be reached at shelley.murphy@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymurph.