(AP) — A judge on Massachusetts’ highest court denied a bid to block federal immigration agents from making arrests at state courthouses, though she expressed concern that the practice may be scaring off some witnesses and others needed in court.
Justice Elspeth Cypher of the Supreme Judicial Court said in her ruling this week that she agrees that the “administration of justice” suffers when people who have business in court don’t show up because they’re afraid of being arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
But Cypher said she could not order the “unprecedented” relief sought by civil rights and indigent defense groups because, among other things, she heard only one side of the argument and the groups’ lawyers have refused to identify immigrants cited in the petition who say they’re too scared to appear in court.
The petition filed in March sought to prevent agents from arresting people in state courthouses for civil immigration violations. It was thought to be the country’s first challenge of its kind to the practice, which has roiled immigration lawyers, advocates and some judges.
Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan was among those who urged the judge to refer the matter to the full court, saying in a letter earlier this year that “justice is harmed when victims and witnesses … are afraid to even set foot in a courthouse because of the possibility of facing arrest for civil immigration infractions.”
Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of one of the groups that filed the petition, said Friday that they’re disappointed with the decision and assessing their options.
“Our clients – and countless immigrants in Massachusetts and across the country – remain open to unfettered intimidation, harassment, and detention by federal immigration officials. The courthouse doors remain effectively closed to immigrants,” said Espinoza-Madrigal, of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice.
Federal officials in January formalized a policy to send agents to federal, state and local courthouses to make arrests, despite pressure from advocates to declare the halls of justice as “sensitive locations” that are generally free from immigration enforcement.
Trump administration officials have said courthouses are a safer place for agents to make arrests, since visitors typically have to go through metal detectors.
ICE says it is targeting convicted criminals, gang members and public safety threats at courthouses as well as immigrants who have been previously deported or ordered to leave. Officials say family, friends and witnesses in court won’t be arrested unless there are “special circumstances.” ICE says it will “generally avoid” immigration enforcement in non-criminal courthouses such as family court.
ICE officials didn’t immediately respond to emails on Friday.