Undocumented Immigrants Score a Win for Their Civil Rights in New England

July 25th 2017

Danielle DeCourcey

A Massachusetts high court became the first in the country to rule that local law enforcement cannot hold undocumented immigrants solely for the purpose of handing them over to federal authorities. 


In Lunn v. Commonwealth, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled Monday that law enforcement can only detain undocumented immigrants if they are being charged with a crime—not just because federal immigration authorities request it. 

“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 decision states.

People on Twitter had mixed reactions about the court's ruling. 

"It doesn't affect anyone's ability to prosecute," Laura Rotolo of the American Civil Liberities Union of Massachusetts told ATTN:. "It doesn't apply to criminal holds at all." 

Rotolo explained that, before the decision, people who had been cleared of any criminal wrongdoing were still being held for federal authorities over their immigration status—a civil, not criminal, matter.

"The court is saying 'well, that's a brand new arrest, and it has nothing to do with the crime. That's a civil hold,'" she said. 

An Immigration and Customs Enforcement official told a local station that the decision will make communities less safe.

ICE police.  

“While ICE is currently reviewing this decision to determine next steps, this ruling weakens local law enforcement agencies’ ability to protect their communities," the official said. "The dedicated men and women of ICE will continue to do our sworn duty to enforce our immigration laws and protect the safety and security of the citizens of Massachusetts’ communities.”

However, the state attorney who brought the case praised the ruling.

“Today’s decision is a victory for the rule of law and smart immigration and criminal justice policies, and a rejection of anti-immigrant policies that have stoked fear in communities across the country," Attorney General Maura Healey said in a press release. "As my office argued in this case, Massachusetts law protects our residents from illegal detention and prevents the federal government from forcing local law enforcement to make decisions contrary to the public safety interests of their communities.

Critics say that aggressive immigration polices lead to an uptick in unreported crimes.

Immigration Reform

The Los Angeles Times reported in March that reports of sexual assault and violence had plummeted in Los Angeles because of concerns around new federal immigration policy. Reports dropped by 25 percent among the city's majority Latino population compared with the same period in 2016.

“Imagine, a young woman, imagine your daughter, your sister, your mother… not reporting a sexual assault, because they are afraid that their family will be torn apart,” LA Police Chief Charlie Beck said in March. Sanctuary cities, or cities whose law enforcement and city officials do not cooperate with federal immigration officials, do not have higher rates of crime than other cities. 

Detainers could increase under President Donald Trump's administration. 


In January, Trump signed an executive order empowering local police to enforce immigration laws, and his administration has moved toward increased enforcement against people who have contact with the criminal justice system. In the first 100 days of the Trump administration, immigration arrests climbed nearly 40 percent from the previous year.

Rotolo said that federal detainers have been used for decades, however, and "really picked up" under President Barack Obama.

"They're a big part of immigration enforcement, and they got really big under Obama and we expect it will get even bigger under the Trump administrtion," she said. "There could be other states that look at this decision as support."

RELATED: The Reason Immigrants Are Now Afraid to Enroll in Health Care Plans