In Massachusetts, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials are barred from making civil arrests in courthouses. Such arrests have a chilling effect on the administration of justice—those who fear civil arrest in court are much less likely to seek a court’s help for resolving disputes.

Since 2018, an ICE policy has been encouraging its officers to arrest immigrants in state courthouses. This policy discouraged immigrants from attending court hearings and led to chaos at Massachusetts’ courts, where the problem was acute.

On June 20, a federal court in Massachusetts ordered ICE to stop arresting noncitizens who attend Massachusetts state courts on official business. The decision was a major win for immigrants in Massachusetts, as well as the Massachusetts public defender agency and prosecutors with the Middlesex and Suffolk County District Attorneys’ offices, who formed an unlikely partnership to file this lawsuit in May 2019.

Predictably, injustice thrived under ICE’s courthouse arrest policy. People often were too afraid of ICE agents lurking in state courthouses to seek justice.

Victims of domestic violence were too afraid to file protective orders against their abusers. Investors defrauded out of over $200,000 in a financial scam feared asking a court to hold the scammers accountable due to the possibility of arrest. A woman whose employer did not pay overtime, stole her wages, and then fired her when she missed work because her house burned down could not seek help from a court because of the threat of ICE arrest.

When noncitizens did risk arrest by going to court, the resulting chaos in the courts had a disastrous effect.

Anne Foley, Chief of Victim Witness Protective Services for the Middlesex County District Attorney’s office, described how ICE’s violence and incompetence led her to “understand why our victims and witnesses are afraid to come to court.”

She witnessed several men begin struggling in the courthouse in what looked like “a fistfight,” leading court security officers to run to break up the scuffle. She later discovered that ICE officers in plainclothes were attempting to make an arrest and did not identify themselves. The public looked on aghast as this scene unfolded.

Massachusetts is the first state to win in a federal case against ICE interference in courts. However, it is not the only state fighting back against this lawlessness. Chief Justices from the highest courts of California, Connecticut, New Jersey, Oregon, and Washington have registered their opposition to the practice and the New York state courts have attempted to curtail ICE’s interference in their courthouses.

No one should be prevented from seeking justice because they fear civil arrest in court. This victory in Massachusetts will hopefully serve as a signal to ICE agents that they must allow courts to function as intended.

Photo by massmatt