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Groups aim to bar ICE from courts

Federal lawsuit claims ICE arrests are rendering courts inaccessible

Trea Lavery

A federal lawsuit looking to prevent Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents from conducting civil arrests in Massachusetts began hearings last week, kicking off a discussion on the importance of accessibility to courts for all residents.

The suit was filed last month by District Attorneys Marian Ryan of Middlesex County, Rachael Rollins of Suffolk County, the Committee for Public Counsel Services and the Chelsea Collaborative because of a rising number of courthouse arrests by ICE across the state.

“We decided to file this case after finding records in 2017 showing that immigration enforcement had increased around Massachusetts courthouses since January 2017, and we’ve been hearing from community partners about the impact this is having on immigrant communities,” said Oren Nimni, an attorney with Lawyers for Civil Rights who is working on the case, in an interview.

In opening arguments on May 23, Judge Indira Talwani heard from attorney David Zimmer, who argued that the threat of arrest by immigration officers prevents many undocumented residents from coming to court, whether as the victim or witness of a crime or to take advantage of other court services. He went on to say that this was an infringement of residents’ common-law right to appear in court on official business.

“Courts must be open, free and accessible to all who approach them,” Zimmer said.

The arrests occurring in courthouses are for civil immigration offenses, meaning that they are not criminal, and are generally for immigrants who have overstayed their visa or entered the country illegally.

Much of the hearing was spent on a tense discussion between Judge Talwani and Erez Reuveni, the lawyer representing ICE and the government, about who was being arrested and when.

Reuveni said that in general, people being arrested by ICE in courthouses are not there as victims or witnesses, but instead are there being charged with a crime. He also noted that in general, individuals are not arrested unless it is believed that they pose a public safety threat.

Reuveni went on to say that without tangible evidence that specific people are being scared away from the courts, the plaintiffs did not have a case against a policy that has been on the books for five years, since the Obama administration.

“What they’re asking for here is an injunction in a vacuum,” he said. “What took so long?”

Talwani seemed to disagree, however, saying that there seemed to be two different issues at stake: one where criminal defendants were being arrested, and another where other, innocent people were being arrested while on court business.

Arguments will continue on Tuesday morning.

Nimni told the Banner that he felt optimistic about the process of the trial so far.

“We think it’s clear from the hearing that the judge is taking the issue very seriously and working methodically through the legal points and making sure the government actually justifies what it’s doing and can explain what’s going on,” he said. “We’re looking forward to probing the legality more completely.”

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