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Customs officials in Boston ask police for space for detainees

Demonstrators during a rally earlier this month in Boston.Associated Press/File

The Boston office of US Customs and Border Protection has recently asked local police departments to make more bed space available for the short-term detention of noncitizens awaiting removal from the country, a concern for advocacy groups who fear the agency is building up jail space to facilitate President Trump’s immigration crackdown.

The letter by Chief Officer Daniel B. Joyce of the Boston office says that detainees would be held while awaiting the next available flight to leave the United States or pending their transfer to a law enforcement branch of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a separate agency. The customs agency would pay a flat rate to local departments willing to house detainees, according to the letter.


Sean D. Smith, a spokesman for the agency, said in a statement that his office regularly has a need to temporarily house individuals denied US entry.

“Due to a lack of overnight housing facilities at some ports of entry such as Boston Logan, we rely on contracted support from local law enforcement jurisdictions to assist with overnight housing and we are currently looking for additional jurisdictions to partner with,” he said in a statement.

The agency’s Boston office oversees the six New England states, including the Canadian border.

The timing of the letter — which was first reported by NECN — and the apparent need for more space to house detainees has raised concern among advocates for immigrants who fear the agency could be ramping up efforts to immediately remove noncitizens, without affording them the opportunity to show they are entering the United States legally or are eligible to apply for asylum.

“The fact that they’re looking for extra beds means they’re anticipating detaining more people,” said Laura Rotolo, an immigrant rights lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.

“If they’re turning people around very quickly without the ability to see a judge, without those due process protections, that’s very concerning for us,” she added.


In January, President Trump signed an executive order calling for increased enforcement of immigration laws. A separate order temporarily restricted immigrants from seven nations and banned all refugees from entering the United States, creating chaos at airports as authorities turned people away. That ban was halted by the courts, however, and Trump is expected to issue a revised order, possibly on Wednesday.

Late Tuesday, The New York Times reported that Trump told TV anchors during a meeting at the White House he would be open to a broad immigration overhaul that would grant legal status to millions of unauthorized immigrants who have not committed serious crimes, in a major shift in his policy.

The president reportedly said that such an overhaul would require congressional compromise.

The Customs and Border Protection agency has duties separate from the ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations office, which investigates and apprehends unauthorized immigrants and non-citizens who commit crimes that could warrant deportation. Customs and Border Protection agents patrol ports of entry, at borders and at airports, and determine whether people are eligible to enter the country.

In most cases, those arrested by customs and border agents would be held at a local police department facility for 12 to 24 hours, according to the letter sent to departments. It is not unusual, however, for a non-citizen apprehended by those agents to be held for several days without seeing a judge while the agency processes paperwork.


Smith, the spokesman, would not identify which local police departments already house detainees for the agency, and to which departments his office sent letters asking for available space. He also would not say whether any of those departments have since made space available.

“This kind of solicitation has been utilized for at least the last several years,” Smith said.

Bristol Sheriff Thomas Hodgson, who recently signed on to a federal initiative that allows his officers to enforce federal immigration law, said law enforcement officers anywhere should be willing to provide jail space for federal agencies because it is their duty to help the government enforce immigration laws.

Hodgson oversaw the building of a facility on jail grounds in Dartmouth specifically to house immigrants detained by ICE. On Monday, the jail held 196 detainees at that facility and other buildings, at a rate of $98 per detainee per day, a spokesman said. That money is paid to state coffers, the spokesman said.

“If there’s people we believe that are a threat to any community, and they need space to get them off the street . . . whatever space we do have, we ought to be utilizing,” Hodgson said.

Chelsea Police Chief Brian Kyes said, however, that the request by customs for jail space puts local police officers who are trying to build trust with immigrants in an awkward position. He argued that local police departments should not be looked at as jailers of immigrants — though he recognizes the need to detain people considered dangerous.


“To me, that’s a complicated process, a complicated potential partnership,” said Kyes. Nearly half of Chelsea’s residents were born outside the United States and the city considers itself a “sanctuary city” that does not enforce federal immigration laws.

“If a person is detained solely because they’re from another country, detained at a local police department to be deported, that can send the wrong message and have an adverse impact,” Kyes said. “There are a lot of reasons why I would not be able to do that here in Chelsea.”

Kyes said he did not receive the letter from Customs and Border Protection. The Suffolk sheriff’s office in Boston, which housed 173 ICE detainees as of Monday, also did not receive such a letter, a spokesman said. Neither did Boston police.

The Revere Police Department, which has not been participating in the program, said it received the request and is taking it under advisement.

Milton J. Valencia can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @MiltonValencia.