Our Opinion: Weak federal immigration case before SJC

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The role of local and Massachusetts officials in federal immigration policy was largely a theoretical issue in recent years until the aggressive immigration policies of the Trump administration brought it squarely into the foreground. The state Supreme Judicial Court is considering this role now in a case that could set a precedent for other states confronting the same dilemma.

Federal authorities have long issued "detainers" to local law enforcement officials requesting that they hold people wanted for immigration law offenses for up to 48 hours without a judicially approved warrant. In the case that has now come before the SJC, Syrenuon Lunn, a native of Cambodia, was arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on robbery charges from the 2000s. The state declined to prosecute, but Boston Municipal Court detained him until he was taken into federal custody by ICE. State Attorney General argues that the court overstepped its authority in working with ICE.

On Tuesday, SJC Justice Geraldine S. Hines asked Joshua Press, an attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice, "What in our state law does permit this?" There is nothing that does so, as the justice certainly knew. Mr. Press responded that the state needed to pass a state law prohibiting local law enforcement from cooperating with federal immigration officials, but immigration attorney Emma Winger countered that in the absence of a state law now, detaining immigrants at the request of federal officials "raises the sort of concerns of arbitral arrest that [the Constitution] intended to address."

Attorney General Healey argues that it is simply unlawful in Massachusetts for local officials to detain someone solely for federal immigration offenses. This doesn't preclude local and state officials from working with federal officials when an immigrant poses a threat to public safety, the AG added. The latter situation aside, law enforcement officials around the state have expressed opposition to working with ICE because it will undermine the trust they must have in immigrant communities needed to pursue criminal activity there. In January, acting Pittsfield Police Chief Michael Wynn told The Eagle, in regards to this issue, "If we ask questions unnecessarily we miss the opportunity to clear crimes that are committed locally. That's the crime that we are interested in; the [immigration] stuff is secondary." That appears to generally represent the opinions of local law enforcement in the state.

Immigration law is the province of the federal government. ICE is not about to concede that authority, but it is trying to have it both ways when it involves state and local authorities at its convenience even if it jeopardizes the important work of those authorities within their communities. The issuance of "detainers" without a judicially approved warrant was an act of what Mr. Press described as "comity" between agencies that is now crossing over into violation of due process — if it hadn't before. "Friends don't ask friends to violate their own Constitution," said ACLU of Massachusetts Legal Director Matthew Segal on Tuesday.

The state doesn't need a law forbidding what is already forbidden by the Constitution. The questions of the SJC judges indicated their skepticism of the Justice Department's argument — a skepticism that is definitely merited.

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