The Biden administration on Thursday ended the long-running federal agreement with the Bristol County sheriff’s office to house civil immigration detainees, and assailed Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson’s agency for its “unacceptable” treatment of the prisoners.
The announcement followed years of criticism by civil liberties groups and immigration advocates of Hodgson, an outspoken opponent of illegal immigration and of the Biden administration’s handling of the surge of migrants at the US-Mexico border. One recent report accused Hodgson of using dogs to attack noncitizen detainees at his immigration facility.
“Allow me to state one foundational principle: we will not tolerate the mistreatment of individuals in civil immigration detention or substandard conditions of detention,” Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro N. Mayorkas said in a memo ordering US Immigration and Customs Enforcement to cut ties with the sheriff’s office and relocate the remaining seven immigration detainees in Bristol to other facilities.
The decision is part of a broad reassessment of immigration detention centers by the Biden administration and is the latest in a string of developments that have reduced ICE’s footprint in Massachusetts. Franklin Sheriff Christopher Donelan said Thursday that he recently ended an agreement to keep immigration detainees in one of his facilities. After protests, the Suffolk sheriff’s department ended its relationship with ICE in 2019.
In December, a group of taxpayers challenged the legality of an ICE agreement that allows the Plymouth sheriff’s department to enforce immigration law to the state Supreme Judicial Court. ICE also has agreements with the Department of Correction and Barnstable sheriff’s department that allow them to enforce immigration law.
In his memo, Mayorkas said the C. Carlos Carreiro Immigration Detention Center in Dartmouth is of “minimal operational significance to the agency.”
“Moreover, there is ample evidence that the Detention Center’s treatment of detained individuals and the conditions of detention are unacceptable,” wrote Mayorkas, who also ordered ICE to discontinue its use of the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Ga. The decisions were first reported Thursday by The Washington Post.
In a statement issued Thursday, Hodgson said Mayorkas’s decision puts citizens “at greater risk of being victimized by criminal illegal aliens.” He plans to hold a news conference on Friday outside the Dartmouth facility.
“This is nothing but a political hit job orchestrated by [Secretary] Mayorkas, the Biden administration, and other anti-law enforcement groups to punish outspoken critics and advance their partisan agenda to score political points,” said Hodgson, a fervent supporter of federal immigration enforcement.
A Republican who has served as sheriff since 1997, Hodgson has used his facilities to detain immigrants since 2000, when he entered into an agreement with ICE’s predecessor, the US Immigration and Naturalization Service. During the Trump administration, he became a lightning rod for controversy. In 2017, he offered inmate labor to build a wall on the border with Mexico, the signature pledge of Donald Trump’s first presidential campaign. In 2020, he served as honorary chairman of Trump’s campaign efforts in Massachusetts.
Since Trump left office, Hodgson helped organize a letter from 275 sheriffs criticizing President Biden’s handling of immigration on the border. He was interviewed last month on Fox News while he visited the border in Arizona.
“While [Secretary] Mayorkas and the Biden administration are turning their backs on the people of our great country, I will not,” Hodgson said in his statement.
The Bristol County sheriff’s office held two agreements with ICE: one that gave the agency authority to enforce federal immigration law and a second that let the federal government place civil immigration detainees in the sheriff’s custody. Mayorkas terminated both.
That generated an outpouring of praise from members of the state’s congressional delegation, civil rights lawyers, and activists who have spoken out against Hodgson’s treatment of civil immigration detainees.
“Bristol is a notoriously inhumane facility and has been for many years,” said Oren Sellstrom, litigation director at Lawyers for Civil Rights Boston. “The Biden administration has recognized that and taken decisive action to ensure that Sheriff Hodgson can no longer harm immigrants detained in his custody.”
The number of immigration detainees at the Bristol facility has dropped dramatically since last March when a class action lawsuit was filed in federal court challenging unsafe conditions and overcrowding there during the coronavirus pandemic. There were 148 civil immigration detainees at the center when the lawsuit was filed, and this week there are just seven, said Sellstrom, a lawyer for the detainees.
In December, Attorney General Maura Healey issued a scathing report that found the sheriff committed civil rights violations during a jailhouse melee on May 1, 2020.
The report found that Hodgson’s staff illegally unleashed dogs on detainees, used excessive force, and showed “callous disregard” for their well-being during the confrontation. Based on her findings, Healey urged the Trump administration to strip Hodgson’s office of its immigration role. She made the same recommendation last month to Mayorkas, who was confirmed to lead the homeland security agency in February.
Hodgson’s office has “a long history of abuse and neglect of immigration detainees,” Healey said Thursday in a statement.
“Our extensive investigation and advocacy have made it clear that the Sheriff’s Office is not willing to take any steps to protect the rights and safety of detainees, and that ICE must sever ties with BCSO,” Healey said. “This decision under the Biden Administration ensures that the civil rights of immigrants are protected and not violated in a callous disregard for human life and dignity.”
The Office of Inspector General at the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees ICE, launched an investigation into the incident last year. The office didn’t respond to an e-mail on Thursday.
Hodgson has dismissed Healey’s investigation as flawed and politically motivated.
In February, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Edward J. Markey, plus eight members of the state’s congressional delegation, asked Mayorkas to end ICE’s agreements with Hodgson. On Thursday, they praised the decision to do so as “just and humane.”
Healey’s investigation “made clear that the BCSO should not be engaged in immigrant detention. Every person has the right to dignity, safety, and due process,” the senators and House members said in a statement. “This decision affirms that right, and is a victory for the detainees, families, lawyers, and advocates who have pushed for more accountability and more humane treatment by the BCSO.”
Elizabeth Matos, executive director of the nonprofit Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, said what happened under Hodgson’s leadership raises broader question about the federal government’s reliance on local law enforcement to handle immigration detainees.
“It’s really become more of an industry over the years and it’s not because there’s an increased threat brought by on immigrants,” she said. “There is no need for immigrants to be separated from their families, especially for what is a civil issue.”