IN A FIRST-in-the-nation decision, the state’s highest court provided a welcome bit of clarity Monday on the proper interplay between local authorities and federal immigration law.

Ruling in the case of a Cambodian immigrant who was held in a courthouse cell in Boston without a warrant, the court found that nothing in Massachusetts statutes or common law allows state court officers to hold undocumented residents on civil immigration detainers.

It’s an important ruling that upholds basic individual rights in Massachusetts but leaves ambiguity about its scope that the Legislature will need to resolve. Immigration detainers are not warrants; they are voluntary requests to hold individuals who would otherwise go free. The Supreme Judicial Court found that holding a person against their will constitutes an arrest under state law, and that no law grants such sweeping authority to state officers.


The ruling comes against the backdrop of President Trump’s efforts to step up deportations. Because the federal government lacks the resources to round up and deport millions of immigrants on its own, the president’s crackdown relies on local cooperation from local police, court officers, and sheriffs.

Diverting local resources to immigration is a misuse of time and money. The SJC ruling makes clear that court officers, at least, should play no part in the president’s deportation machine.

The ruling’s reach, though, is uncertain. Read narrowly, the court explicitly limited its order to court officers. But its language strongly implied that other Massachusetts law enforcement officials couldn’t honor immigration detainers either. The ruling invites further legal challenges against police departments or state agencies that choose to hold immigrants on federal detainers. That’s all the more reason the Legislature should clear up the confusion by passing legislation to explicitly extend Monday’s ruling to all law enforcement.

Fortunately, a bill with just such a prohibition has already been written. The Safe Communities Act, a proposal backed by immigration advocates, would make clear that state and local authorities are prohibited from complying with detainers. The bill also prohibits agreements with the federal government that deputize local agents as immigration officers, such as contracts signed by Bristol and Plymouth sheriff’s departments. That provision, too, ensures that local police departments and sheriffs are not using their limited resources on civil immigration matters. Those two key provisions ought to be fast-tracked to Governor Baker, who should sign them.


Under Trump, the federal government has embarked on an indiscriminate deportation binge. In Massachusetts, the high-profile cases of MIT janitor Francisco Rodriguez and John Cunningham, the Irish citizen who was deported recently, have demonstrated just how little the administration cares about the impact of its actions on Massachusetts communities.

The state may not be able to stop those outrages, but there’s never been a more important time to declare it won’t help them, either.