Prosecutors, Public Defenders, and Community Groups File Federal Lawsuit to Block Immigration Arrests in Courthouses

Boston, MA, April 29, 2019 – Today, Middlesex County District Attorney Marian Ryan, Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins, the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS), and the Chelsea Collaborative filed a groundbreaking lawsuit demanding an end to federal immigration enforcement in and around Massachusetts courthouses.

For the last two years, officers from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have frequented Massachusetts courthouses, surveilling, arresting and detaining immigrants. The degree to which these civil arrests are occurring in courthouses is unprecedented in American history and have severely undermined the administration of justice and access to judicial redress in the Commonwealth.

Entire communities now view the Massachusetts courts as places at which they simply cannot appear. Civil plaintiffs and criminal defendants cannot resolve their cases without risking detention and deportation. Witnesses do not appear in court out of fear of immigration arrest and deportation making legal proceedings and prosecutions more difficult. Victims of domestic violence seeking restraining orders against their abusers cannot access basic life-saving protections without exposing themselves to immigration enforcement. ICE’s policy has effectively closed the courthouse door to immigrants and made us all unsafe in the process.

To combat this disruptive practice, representatives are joining together from all sides of the judicial system – including prosecutors and public defenders. The District Attorneys’ Offices, public defenders, and community groups such as the Chelsea Collaborative have all borne the brunt of ICE’s illegal and unconstitutional arrest policy – and are now uniting to stop it.

“ICE’s using state courthouses as a forum to conduct their enforcement work has struck fear in many of our most vulnerable, keeping them from accessing our courts. That is not justice.  It does not make our communities safer. What is clear to me is that in order to make meaningful and positive change, we all need to work together.  This lawsuit represents the first time that prosecutors, public defenders and advocates have filed a lawsuit with the goal of formally ending this practice.  As our country wrestles with the complex problem of the state of the American immigration system, we cannot permit access to the courts of this Commonwealth by all of its residents to be detrimentally affected,” said District Attorney Ryan.  

“Our criminal justice system can only function properly when people feel safe coming to court. When victims, witnesses, and defendants fear that entering a courthouse could place them at risk of immigration consequences, it prevents us as prosecutors from securing justice for the people we serve,” District Attorney Rollins said. “Initiating a federal civil deportation prior to a criminal defendant being held accountable for the harm they caused in Suffolk County does nothing to serve the interest of justice or public safety. Instead, it creates an environment of fear and mistrust, and harms our entire community.”

“Federal ICE agents have been regularly stalking our state courthouses in communities throughout Massachusetts for the last two years. When criminal defendants, witnesses and civil litigants are arrested by ICE before their cases are resolved or avoid the courthouses because of fear of ICE arrest, access to justice is denied for everyone,” said Wendy Wayne, Director of the CPCS Immigration Impact Unit. CPCS, which is responsible for all indigent criminal defense in the Commonwealth, can no longer effectively represent their immigrant clients who fear ICE arrest or defend their clients when noncitizen witnesses refuse to come to court.

“This lawsuit provides a powerful blueprint for advocates across the country who want to protect access to the courts and to judicial redress,” said Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, Executive Director of Lawyers for Civil Rights.

The lawsuit seeks a declaration from the court that ICE’s policy and practice of arresting people while coming to, attending, or returning from court is illegal. The suit also asks the court to immediately enjoin ICE from conducting any more courthouse arrests. 

The District Attorneys and the Chelsea Collaborative are represented pro bono by Goodwin Procter LLP. The Chelsea Collaborative is also represented by Lawyers for Civil Rights. The CPCS Immigration Impact Unit is representing CPCS. For more information about this groundbreaking case, see the brief here.

Renee Algarin