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Federal judge halts immigration arrests at Massachusetts courts while lawsuit plays out

(Associated Press/File)

A federal judge on Thursday temporarily blocked immigration agents from making civil arrests at Massachusetts courthouses, siding with two prosecutors who have sued the federal government over the practice.

US District Judge Indira Talwani granted a preliminary injunction that stops US Immigration and Customs Enforcement “from civilly arresting parties, witnesses, and others attending Massachusetts courthouses on official business while they are going to, attending, or leaving the courthouses.”

Thursday’s order marks the first judicial ruling in the country to halt such immigration arrests across a state, according to Oren Nimni, an attorney for Lawyers for Civil Rights in Boston.

In April, Middlesex District Attorney Marian T. Ryan and Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins joined public defenders and immigration advocates in the suit seeking to block the practice. The litigation has underscored escalating tensions between federal and state officials over immigration enforcement, with ICE asking a judge to reject the request for a preliminary injunction.

On Thursday, ICE spokesman John Mohan said in a statement that the agency “was reviewing the court’s decision.”

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“At this time, we have no direct comment on the matter,” he said.

In recent years, ICE policy allowed for agents to pick up illegal immigrants in and around courthouses in Massachusetts and other states, according to court documents. Immigration officials say they do so for public safety reasons.

Immigrant advocates say the practice discourages people from using the courthouse. For example, domestic violence victims are avoiding courthouses rather than expose themselves to ICE, according to the lawsuit.

Ryan was among those to welcome the ruling, saying in a statement that it recognizes “the irreparable harm caused by ICE’s disruptive policy of using our courthouses to conduct civil arrests.”

“The granting of this injunction is a critical step in the right direction for our Commonwealth and it should be a model for our nation,” she said.

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Rollins also hailed the ruling. “As my staff and I closely review the decision, we look forward to continuing our vital work in courthouses across Suffolk County that will be positively impacted by today’s ruling,” said Rollins in a statement.

The ruling comes as a Newton District Court judge and a now-retired state court officer face obstruction of justice charges for allegedly helping an undocumented immigrant escape federal detention in a separate case that has divided the state’s legal community.

Additionally, the heated debate over illegal immigration continues to rage nationally, with President Trump saying in a Monday tweet that ICE will remove “millions” of immigrants who have entered the United States illegally starting next week.

Trump has also blasted Rollins and Ryan for their suit against federal immigration authorities, saying in early May they “probably don’t mind crime” and suggesting without evidence that their efforts are designed to protect ruthless street gangs.

Rollins and Ryan’s lawsuit argues that ICE has no authority to search state courthouses for people facing civil immigration violation warrants. The complaint stated that under the Trump administration, ICE has issued a directive to conduct civil arrests at courthouses in violation of the 10th Amendment, which limits federal power over states, and flouts a centuries-long position that a person going to court should not have to fear arrest on a civil matter.

In her 29-page ruling, Talwani noted that the district attorneys claimed that ICE had hindered their ability to carry out the primary functions of their jobs. Her order did not limit ICE’s criminal arrests of people who are leaving, going to, or attending courthouses. Nor does it limit civil arrests of those who are brought to Massachusetts courthouses while in state or federal custody.

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Nimni, the attorney for Lawyers for Civil Rights in Boston, which is representing the plaintiffs in the case, said civil arrests are for infractions, such as visa overstays. When it comes to civil arrests, immigration agents can have an administrative warrant from their agency, or they can arrest people without a warrant.

With criminal arrests, immigration authorities have a warrant from a judge, Nimni said. Some immigration violations, such as illegal re-entry into the country, can trigger criminal arrests, he said.

In allowing the preliminary injunction, Talwani said that the plaintiffs were “likely to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of preliminary relief.” She called the injunction “in the public interest.”

In court filings, ICE has asserted that courthouse arrests helped ensured that people who were convicted of crimes, gang members, and national security or safety risks were safely apprehended and removed from the country.

Federal authorities have previously said that the plaintiffs in the case “assert an overbroad privilege that finds no support in Supreme Court precedent: a privilege against all civil arrests regardless of jurisdiction or arresting authority.”

Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights in Boston said Thursday’s order “represents a huge victory for the rule of law, against the overreaching anti-immigrant policies of the Trump administration.”

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“As LCR and our allies have consistently demonstrated, ICE’s immigration enforcement in and around courthouses undermines our system of justice, by chilling victims and witnesses from seeking redress in our courts,” Espinoza-Madrigal said in a statement.

Carol Rose, executive director at the ACLU of Massachusetts, said on Thursday immigration arrests at courthouses undermine the justice system “by spreading fear in immigrant communities and by limiting the efficacy of core services available at courthouses.”

Massachusetts, said Rose, must “do all that it can to protect the fundamental due process rights of immigrants.”

Representative Ayanna Pressley, a Boston Democrat, also praised Thursday’s order. “Today’s ruling affirms the dignity and humanity of our immigrant brothers and sisters in the 7th and throughout our country,” she said in a statement.


Maria Cramer, John R. Ellement, Peter Bailey-Wells, and Travis Andersen of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.