BOSTON (CN) – Two Massachusetts prosecutors brought a federal complaint Monday to halt U.S. immigration officers from patrolling state courthouses to round up people for deportation.
The practice began two years ago at the direction of President Donald Trump, upending years of legal tradition. Leading Monday’s lawsuit, Suffolk County District Attorney Rachel Rollins and Middlesex County District Attorney Marian Ryan say the effects of the policy have been dramatic across the state.
“Entire communities now view the Massachusetts courts as places where they cannot go, for any reason, greatly impeding access to justice and undermining the administration of justice in these communities,” the 48-page complaint states. “Criminal defendants refuse to appear, defaulting rather than risk civil arrest, detention, and removal by ICE. Witnesses do not appear for fear of arrest and deportation, undermining prosecutions, depriving criminal defendants of their right to present a defense, and interfering with the operation of civil litigation. And civil litigants seeking relief such as restraining orders against violent partners, unpaid wages from an unscrupulous employer, or remedies from landlords providing illegal housing are forced to tolerate domestic violence, illegal working conditions, and unsafe living conditions to avoid ICE civil arrest.”
DA Rollins and DA Ryan are joined in the suit by the groups Chelsea Collaborative and the Committee for Public Counsel Services. Attorneys at Goodwin Procter filed the complaint along with the in-house counsel for the committee and the group Lawyers for Civil Rights.
They challenge the policy as simultaneously impractical, illegal and “unprecedented in American history.”
Both the U.S. Supreme Court and Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court “have long recognized a privilege against civil arrests for those attending court on official business,” according to the complaint, which emphasizes that such a privilege “rests on the common-sense principle that the judicial system cannot function if parties and witnesses fear that their appearance in court will be used as a trap.”
DA Rollins emphasized in a statement why it is important for people to 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,” 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.”
The lawsuit follows the indictment last week of a judge and a court officer in Newton, Massachusetts, on federal charges of obstruction of justice. Prosecutors say the pair helped an undocumented man avoid ICE authorities waiting in the courthouse lobby by exiting through a back door in the basement of the building.
“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, said in a statement.
Representatives for the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees ICE, have not returned an email seeking comment.