Today, in another legal blow to U.S. Immigration and Custom’s Enforcement’s (ICE) use of immigration detainers, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decided that police or judicial authorities’ practice of holding people pursuant to federal immigration detainers violates Massachusetts law. This decisions means that ICE can no longer lawfully ask Massachusetts law enforcement to detain individuals solely for immigration enforcement purposes. Today’s decision is an affirmation of individual liberty and a strong rebuke of federal efforts to short-circuit the legal process to deport people more quickly.
In Lunn v. Commonwealth, Heartland Alliance's National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC), along with the Committee for Public Counsel Services, litigated whether Massachusetts law enforcement agents have authority under the commonwealth’s statutes and constitution to arrest individuals based on immigration detainers. Immigration detainers are written requests by ICE asking local police to detain individuals beyond the time when they would otherwise be released, so that ICE can take the individuals into custody. The Court unanimously said no: “Massachusetts law provides no authority for Massachusetts court officers to arrest and hold an individual solely on the basis of a Federal civil immigration detainer, beyond the time that the individual would otherwise be entitled to be released from State custody.” The Court rejected the federal government’s argument that state and local police have an “inherent” or “implicit” authority to make civil immigration arrests.
“The ICE detainer program damages communities and is built on a foundation of illegality,” said Mark Fleming, associate director of litigation at NIJC. “The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s unanimous decision confirms this, and will be a model for other state courts. We look forward to the day when immigration detainers will be an illegal tactic of the past.”
Detainers have played a key role in ICE’s harsh interior enforcement policies. Through detainers, ICE has relied on local law enforcement agencies to assist in the detention of more than one million immigrants. This collaboration between local police and immigration enforcement undermines community safety because immigrant communities often fear that reporting a crime or cooperating in the prosecution of a crime will lead to deportation. Courts in Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Oregon, Texas, and Florida have previously ruled that immigration detainers are unlawful.
“Today’s decision reaffirms the fundamental principle that when the government detains someone, it should be pursuant to a judicial warrant based on probable cause for the detention,” said Mary Meg McCarthy, executive director of NIJC. “It is ironic that the government argues that the deportation laws must be enforced without any mercy, but when laws require immigration authorities to provide fair process, they try to take short cuts.”
NIJC was co-counsel on the case with the Committee for Public Counsel Services. The Court’s ruling is effective immediately.