In a statement this week, US Attorney for Massachusetts Andrew Lelling lent his support to the arrest of immigrants in federal court, a practice that has drawn the ire of the state court system and immigration advocates and attorneys who have sued to have practice barred.
Lelling's statement came Thursday, the day after a federal judge in Boston expressed outrage that Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents detained a Chinese woman in court after she was sentenced to probation for using a fake passport and visa.
Xinyan Wang, 27, a student in Pennsylvania, had pleaded guilty to using an assumed name and fraudulent documents to take the Graduate Record Exam, or GRE, as someone else in Boston. After she was sentenced, immigration officials took custody of Wang.
The "agents who escorted Wang out of the courtroom . . . were doing their jobs: enforcing federal law," Lelling wrote in his statement. "Their efforts to protect the public should be applauded, not criticized."
Wang, he said, "was a guest in this country" who "answered that invitation by committing a federal felony."
Michael Shea, acting special agent in charge of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations in Boston, said his agency "appreciated the support of the United States attorney and his recognition that the legitimate mission" of ICE might "under certain circumstances require enforcement actions to be carried out in courthouse surroundings."
This week's arrest comes amid growing controversy over immigration officials making arrests at state courthouses. Several civil rights groups sued the government last month, asking the state's highest court to forbid ICE from arresting people inside or near state courthouses, saying the arrests have been chilling for defendants, victims, and witnesses, and trample on the constitutional rights of the accused.
According to the suit, some immigrants who have cases in state courts are defaulting on judge's orders, violating probation, or failing to receive court-ordered drug and mental health services because they are in ICE custody. Victims are afraid to seek relief and protection from the courts, and witnesses are reluctant to testify for fear of being picked up by immigration officials, the suit said.
On Wednesday, ICE agents appeared at Wang's sentencing, and, according to a Reuters report on the case, US District Judge Indira Talwani was not pleased when they showed up with the intention of taking Wang into custody, if she was not sentenced to prison in her federal case.
Talwani questioned why officials could not contact Wang's lawyer so she could turn herself in, Reuters reported. The wire service quoted Talwani as saying, "I see no reason for places of redress and justice to become places that people are afraid to show up."
Wang was a graduate student at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania working on a fiber optics project that was to be the subject of her dissertation when her adviser's lab ran out of funding in 2015 or 2016, court documents said. This, the documents said, essentially "put an end to the project on which her PhD was to be based . . . and her graduate education just fell apart."
She left graduate school in 2016 but didn't want to leave the country, so she enrolled in a nearby community college in order to keep her student visa, court documents said. But she didn't have a job. Her $20,000 annual graduate assistantship ended with her graduate education.
So she began taking graduate school entrance exams, posing as other people, for money, court documents said.
The Educational Testing Service, which administers the GRE, contacted investigators on Oct. 16, saying they suspected an imposter was scheduled to take the test in a few days, the criminal complaint said. The testing service sent over records that the criminal complaint said showed Wang had taken the GRE or Test of English as a Foreign Language five other times in Pennsylvania and New York.
The photos taken by the company of test-takers each time resembled Wang but she used different names and dates of birth on each of the registration forms and documents she presented at each testing site, the complaint said. And that's what she did when she checked in to take the test in Boston, documents show.
"It was wrong of course, but she was financially desperate and did not want to take more money from her parents than she already was," her attorney, Syrie Fried, wrote in the sentencing memo. "Ms. Wang had no conception that she was breaking American law or committing crimes by her behavior. She knew she was violating the integrity of the . . . testing process."