Rachael Rollins, the new Suffolk County district attorney, is blasting Immigration and Customs Enforcement for arresting an undocumented immigrant in a Boston courthouse this month when he showed up for an arraignment on cocaine trafficking charges.
Rollins vowed to launch an investigation to find out how ICE learned about the man’s whereabouts when he went to Suffolk Superior Court on Jan. 7.
“I absolutely find this incredibly troubling, irrespective of what this person was charged with,” Rollins said Friday. “This is a high priority for me. I’m personally looking into this incident. I will personally be getting the answers.”
The declaration marked one of the first direct challenges Rollins has made to another law enforcement agency following a campaign in which she promised to be an independent check on those in power.
ICE’s practice of arresting undocumented immigrants when they show up in state and federal courts for cases unrelated to their immigration status has infuriated judges, defense attorneys, and even police leaders and other prosecutors, who typically work with immigration officials on gang and drug investigations. The concern has been that the agency’s increasingly frequent presence in courts will cause people not only to fail to show up for criminal court hearings but deter witnesses from testifying and victims from coming forward with complaints because they fear they will make themselves vulnerable to deportation.
An ICE official said the agency’s focus is defendants wanted on serious criminal charges.
“We don’t make a lot of courthouse arrests but when we do it’s a conscious decision,” said the official, who asked not to be identified because only media officers are authorized to speak to the press. Media officers are all on furlough due to the partial federal government shutdown, the official said.
The man apprehended by ICE was Alfeu Barbosa, 21, a Cape Verdean national with a long criminal record, the official said, including two recent convictions for breaking and entering with intent to commit a felony and a February 2018 conviction for resisting arrest.
“We do intend to do our jobs, and this is clearly someone whose welcome to the United States has expired,” the official said. “We’re not going to apologize for wanting to take him into custody.”
Barbosa is in custody at the Plymouth County Correctional Facility, according to his lawyer.
Rollins said she called state Attorney General Maura Healey immediately after learning of Barbosa’s capture to seek guidance on how to prevent ICE from arresting people in county courthouses.
“If people believe they’re going to be . . . deported if they come to court, why would anyone come?” Rollins said. “The chilling effect is going to be problematic, in particular when I ran on a platform of telling people that we’re going to bridge the gap between law enforcement and the community so there can be trust.”
Healey’s office said the attorney general had been in touch with Rollins but declined to comment specifically on the incident. “We believe that ICE arrests at our courthouses deter victims and witnesses of crime from coming forward and hurt efforts to establish trusting relationships between law enforcement and communities that are essential to public safety,” said Chloe Gotsis, a spokeswoman for Healey.
The ICE official disputed the criticism that the agency’s presence in the courthouse would deter victims and witnesses from appearing.
“We’re only after one target: the person who is wanted for immigration enforcement, not victims and not witnesses,” the official said.
The Massachusetts Trial Court had no comment.
Barbosa, who went with his girlfriend and brother to the arraignment, had already been released on bail on charges of conspiracy to traffic cocaine when he learned ICE officers were waiting for him in the courthouse, said his lawyer, Nancy Hurley.
“ ‘What am I going to do?’ ” Hurley recalled that he asked her. She told him to stay in the courtroom, but shortly after Barbosa walked out.
A video recorded by his girlfriend shows at least three men in plainclothes surrounding Barbosa outside of the probation office on the seventh floor.
“Why you not waiting for my lawyer,” Barbosa protested as they lead him to the elevator. “Wait for the lawyer.”
Rollins’s office said the prosecutor in the case did not know about Barbosa’s immigration status.
Hurley said that had ICE informed her they would be detaining Barbosa, she would have asked to have his bail revoked, so that he could be placed in state custody.
Attorneys have said that defendants in ICE’s custody are more likely to miss hearings related to their cases because the federal government is far less likely to transport them to court than the state. As a result, defendants in ICE custody may be deported before their cases are resolved, said Susan Church, an immigration attorney in Boston.
“We advise clients not to pay bail even on minor cases because the problem is if you get deported with a serious case pending, or any case really, it makes coming back almost impossible,” Church said.
Meanwhile, offenders with serious charges — like sex offenses — will purposely allow themselves to be detained by ICE so they can leave the country without facing a conviction and a long prison sentence, Church said.
“I’ve had multiple clients say to me, ‘Just get me to ICE so I can go home and that way I don’t have to serve the five years,’ ” Church said. She said she is hearing weekly about people arrested by ICE in courthouses, when it used to be monthly.
Recent court decisions may prevent Rollins from controlling the presence of immigration officials in court. In September, a single justice of the state Supreme Judicial Court denied a bid by eight immigrants — six of whom were undocumented — to block federal immigration agents from making arrests at state courthouses. Justice Elspeth Cypher said she could not enact such an “unprecedented, exceedingly broad” remedy, especially when the immigrants refused to be identified. According to their lawyers, they were afraid to reveal their names in court.