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Highest court asked to nullify sheriff’s office agreement with ICE

Plymouth County Sheriff Joseph McDonald Jr. is facing a lawsuit over a working agreement between his office and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.Dina Rudick/Globe Staff/File 2013

Lawyers for a group of taxpayers are asking the state’s highest court to nullify agreements with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement that allow local sheriffs’ offices to identify, arrest, and transport undocumented immigrants.

A lawsuit filed Monday against Plymouth County Sheriff Joseph McDonald Jr. alleges that his office’s agreement with ICE is unlawful because it devotes state resources to federal civil immigration enforcement.

“There is nothing in the state constitution, statute, or common law that grants Massachusetts sheriffs the power to enter into such agreements,” according to the lawsuit, filed by the Lawyers for Civil Rights on behalf of 28 taxpayers, including Juan Cofield, president of the New England chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

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A sheriff’s power is narrow, “primarily concerned with the management of the jails in their county,” the suit states. It urged the Supreme Judicial Court to issue an injunction barring McDonald and other sheriffs from signing such agreements with ICE.

“We shouldn’t be diverting limited state money to federal immigration enforcement, especially when we need all available resources to get through the pandemic,” Cofield said in a statement. “It’s time we stand together as a Commonwealth to protect our communities and to stop illegal expenditures grounded in racism, bigotry, and xenophobia.”

ICE has similar agreements with sheriffs in Bristol and Barnstable counties, but the suit focuses on Plymouth County because its agreement is the only one that is “operational,” according to the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights.

Todd Lyons, the director of ICE’s Boston field office, declined to comment on the specifics of the lawsuit, but said the agreements with sheriffs’ offices provide critical public safety support.

“These law enforcement professionals understand the critical role in public safety and increased community security these agreements provide to their residents and other citizens of the state,” Lyons said in a statement, adding that the state “is safer as a result of the close coordination with federal law enforcement.

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A spokesman for McDonald declined to comment, saying the sheriff’s office had yet to see the suit.

Under the agreement, the sheriff’s office designates officers to be trained and certified in federal immigration enforcement and authorizes them to interrogate detainees who they suspect are in the United States unlawfully, the suit states. They may serve warrants for arrest or removal, gather evidence, and transport immigrants across state lines to federal detention centers.

Lawyers for Civil Rights attorney Oren Nimni, said the agreements are a drain on state resources.

“People who want Massachusetts to be a welcoming state for immigrants and want immigrants to feel safe should also be worried about these agreements,” Nimni said.

Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of the Lawyers for Civil Rights, said the agreements are “harmful and wasteful.”

“They are bad for immigrants and bad for all of us,” he said.

Last week, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey released a 60-page report concluding that Bristol Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson’s office used excessive force and illegally unleashed dogs on federal immigration detainees during a May 1 melee at the C. Carlos Carreiro Immigration Detention Center. Tensions over coronavirus testing within the facility resulted in a clash between detainees and officers, including Hodgson, the report found.

Healey said Hodgson’s office should be barred from housing federal detainees and participating in federal immigration enforcement.

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In response, Hodgson said the report was “littered with baseless allegations and assumptions” and accused Healey of using the incident to support her “long-documented anti-ICE, pro-illegal immigrant political agenda.”

US District Judge William Young has barred Hodgson’s office from admitting any new immigration detainees and ordered coronavirus testing for staff and people being held at the facility on behalf of the federal government. Young issued that order in response to a class-action lawsuit filed in March that sought the release of civil immigration detainees who were at risk of developing COVID-19.


Shelley Murphy can be reached at shelley.murphy@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymurph.