There's an ongoing battle over just how much Massachusetts authorities can legally partner with federal immigration officials. A Supreme Judicial Court decision in 2017 appeared to offer some clarity.
But now, three county sheriffs and the state's Department of Correction are pushing the limits of that legal decision.
They're all re-upping contracts for what's known as the 287(g) program. The contracts were set to expire at the end of this month, but all of the Massachusetts partners will be cooperating for at least another year.
'There Should Be Consequences'
Immigration advocates and county sheriffs can agree on one thing: The debate over contracts known as 287(g) partnerships is about safety. Advocates say 287(g) partnerships undermine safety in immigrant communities, while sheriffs insist the agreements help protect the larger community.
The program is named after a section added to the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1996. It allows partners to execute so-called ICE detainers — civil warrants issued by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Detainers are not criminal warrants but instead requests from ICE for local law enforcement officials to hold a person who may be wanted on civil immigration charges.
Susan Church, an immigration attorney based in Cambridge, says the state's highest court left little room for interpretation.
"The decision from the Supreme Judicial Court was absolutely clear: State court and law enforcement officers have no business holding people for ICE pickup," Church says.
She's dumbfounded as to why the three county sheriffs — Barnstable, Bristol and Plymouth -- along with the state DOC, are renewing 287(g) contracts when, she says, at least part of those agreements — honoring ICE detainers — is illegal under the SJC's decision.
"Either follow the law or don't follow the law, but if you don't follow the law, they'll have to be sued over it and there should be consequences," Church says.
'It's Never Been A Problem'
Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson sees things differently.
"Well yes, if there is a detainer we obviously would hold them for at least 48 hours that would give ICE time to get there," he says.
Hodgson was eager to partner with the Trump administration in this program, considering it a valuable public safety tool.
One of the responsibilities taken on by county and state partners includes identifying inmates whom ICE wants to take into custody once they've posted bail or been released from jail or a house of correction.
Hodgson says once trained by ICE, his deputized county employees are functioning as federal immigration officials, which he says grants them the authority to enforce the very same detainers outlawed by the SJC.
"We've used these administrative warrants for years and years and years in the past, it's never been a problem," he says.
Immigration advocates are now trying to get rid of the contracts entirely in Massachusetts. Prohibiting 287(g) contracts is part of the latest version of the proposed Safe Communities Act, which should come up for a hearing on Beacon Hill in November.
Amy Grunder works on legislation for the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy coalition, which is lobbying state legislators to pass the new act.
"At a time when immigrant state residents are afraid to access court and police protection, perpetuating agreements like these send exactly the wrong message to immigrant communities," she says. "So, we'd like to see them prohibited outright by law."
Looking To The Courts — Again
The number of 287(g) programs has exploded nationwide under President Trump. There were only 28 partner jurisdictions before he entered office; 52 have signed up since he became president. The three Massachusetts county sheriffs came on board during the Trump administration, while the state's Department of Correction has been a partner since 2016.
These are the only partnerships in New England.
The Hampden County Sheriff's Department says it's interested in participating but it's waiting for clarification from the courts as to exactly how the decision from the SJC squares with 287(g) responsibilities.
That clarity may end up coming from the state's lower courts. Advocates say they're looking for potential cases to show how the partnerships skirt the decision from the state's highest court.
This report comes from the New England News Collaborative: eight public media companies, including The Public's Radio, coming together to tell the story of a changing region, with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.