A federal judge Thursday forced immigration officials to explain their decision to detain several unauthorized immigrants who had been seeking permanent legal status and hold them in custody for months.
“I want to know who made the decision and what was considered,” said Boston US District Court Judge Mark Wolf who ordered four officials from the office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement to testify about the cases of six immigrants, one of whom has been detained for 14 months.
Wolf’s order came after the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts said the agency “systematically violated” the law by holding the unauthorized immigrants without properly considering that many of them would have qualified to remain in the US while their application for permanent status was pending.
Federal immigration officials agreed to release three of the six immigrants while Wolf deliberates on the case. The immigrants will be monitored with ankle bracelets.
“I deeply believe . . . that even one day of unjustified detention would cause irreparable harm,” Wolf said.
Wolf focused his questioning on the other three immigrants, two of whom had criminal records and were considered flight-risks by immigration authorities. Marco Charles, acting field office director of Enforcement and Removal Operations at ICE Boston, was asked about the case of Romilson Ferreira, a Brazilian national married to an American. The couple care for six children.
Charles said he read letters of support for Ferreira and weighed them and his family connections against his arrest for assault and battery on a police officer.
“Would he remain violent?” Charles said he asked himself. “In my opinion, he would because this was a recent arrest.”
Thursday’s hearing was the latest development in a legal case that has stretched over nearly two years. It began after ICE officials began arresting immigrants who had appointments at government offices to seek permanent legal status through their American spouses.
The case gained national attention after the arrest of two mothers of young children: Lilian Calderon, a Guatemalan mother of two children who was arrested by immigration agents in January 2018 at a government office in Rhode Island, where she had gone with her American husband to answer questions about her marriage, and Lucimar de Souza, a Brazilian immigrant married to an American and the mother of three children who was arrested at a government office in downtown Boston.
Both women, who had been interviewed at offices of the US Citizenship and Immigration Services just before their arrests, were eventually released.
In Massachusetts, federal agents have stopped arresting unauthorized immigrants after such interviews but the ACLU is calling on Wolf to order a permanent injunction against the practice.
The immigrants at the heart of Thursday’s hearing were not arrested at government offices but had been seeking permanent legal status through their spouses.
Wolf’s questioning followed two hours of arguments between attorneys for the ACLU and the Department of Justice, which represents the four ICE officers.
ACLU attorney Adriana Lafaille argued that ICE had not properly considered that the immigrants would be eligible for what is known as a provisional waiver, which allows unauthorized immigrants to remain in the United States while their applications for legal status are being considered.
Lafaille has said that ICE detained the immigrants largely because they had been approved for deportation and had their travel documents approved.
Mary Larakers, a lawyer for the Department of Justice, said that internal documents provided by the agency showed that ICE officials had considered the immigrants’ potential to receive provisional waivers. Larakers said the court did not have the jurisdiction to decide how much weight ICE should have given them.
In August 2018, Wolf said he might use his authority to order ICE agents not to arrest immigrants who show up for scheduled visits at government offices. He had previously ruled that ICE had broken the law by holding immigrants in county jails for months without sufficient notice to contest their detentions.
Wolf is now planning to hold hearings in early November to determine whether ICE acted lawfully by detaining the immigrants for so long.
Wolf has also ordered a stay of removal, which forbids ICE from deporting the immigrants.
Wolf said Thursday he would lift the order if he determined that ICE had followed the law, but did not want to keep the immigrants away from their families while the case is pending.
“That’s a month a mother might spend with her child,” Wolf said “That’s a month that a father might spend with a child he might never see again. Even that month is a significant thing. I expect that some of these people are going to be removed from the United States.”