The state Supreme Judicial Court ruled yesterday that nothing in Massachusetts law permits the state to retain custody of an individual on a federal civil immigration detainer, beyond the time that individual would otherwise be entitled to release. It’s a victory for immigrants in state custody who are facing deportation — and a blow to public safety — but it needn’t be the final word.
The ruling came in the case of Sreynuon Lunn, who as a baby was brought to the U.S. from a refugee camp in Thailand. After committing a series of crimes as an adult he was ordered deported to Cambodia, but never removed.
In 2016, after his arraignment on an armed robbery charge, federal officials issued a civil immigration detainer against Lunn. He was held in state custody until a scheduled trial in February. After the criminal charge was dropped he continued to be held on the civil detainer, so the feds could pick him up.
The court’s ruling yesterday declared that detention unlawful — it amounted to an arrest, and “nothing in the statutes or common law of Massachusetts authorizes court officers to make a civil arrest in these circumstances.”
“Conspicuously absent from our common law is any authority (in the absence of a statute) for police officers to arrest generally for civil matters … ” the justices wrote. The court also suggested any attempt by the federal government to force a state to honor a civil immigration detainer would collapse under the weight of the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution.
While the practical outcome of this case is deeply troubling — individuals with a criminal history who are under a deportation order could walk free — Beacon Hill is not powerless on this issue, as the ruling also noted.
“The prudent course is not for this court to create, and attempt to define, some new authority for court officers to arrest that heretofore has been unrecognized and undefined,” the justices wrote. “The better course is for us to defer to the Legislature to establish and carefully define that authority if the Legislature wishes that to be the law of this Commonwealth.”
Of course the Democrats who control Beacon Hill are far more inclined to adopt a statute that forbids cooperation on such detainers rather than one that permits it. They should reconsider that view.
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