Holding immigrants for ICE is unlawful, SJC rules

In a ruling rife with consequences for immigrants being pursued across Massachusetts by federal agents, the Supreme Judicial Court said last month that state law does not permit officials to detain immigrants solely at the request of federal immigration officials, effectively erecting a legal barrier to a long-running component of immigration enforcement.

The case in question involves Sreynuon Lunn, who was born in a Thai refugee camp to Cambodian parents fleeing the Khmer Rouge and brought to the United States as a seven-month-old refugee in 1985. The court concluded that “nothing in the statutes or common law of Massachusetts authorizes court officers to make a civil arrest in these circumstances.”

No single justice was credited with authorship of the ruling declaring that state 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 ruling could stir the immigration debate playing out in Congress and at federal courthouses, as President Donald Trump has sought stricter enforcement of border security and railed against jurisdictions seen as offering “sanctuary” to those in the country illegally.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, Lunn was born in a Thai refugee camp to Cambodian parents fleeing the Khmer Rouge and brought to the United States as a seven-month-old refugee in 1985. He now has two children who are U.S. citizens, according to the ACLU, which represented Lunn in the case.

Lunn, who has two children who are US citizens, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which represented Lunn in the case, racked up a criminal record in the early 2000s and was ordered deported to Cambodia, but the country would not accept him, according to the US Department of Justice. Last year, Lunn was arrested on charges of an unarmed robbery that allegedly occurred in Boston. After the charges were dismissed in February, a Boston Municipal Court judge kept Lunn temporarily locked up at the request of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on a civil detainer, or a request to hold a person otherwise entitled to be released to allow federal authorities time to arrive and take the person into custody for removal.

The U.S. Department of Justice contended that even without explicit law, Massachusetts officials have the “inherent authority” to detain people at the request of ICE.

The Supreme Judicial Court declined to take that view and further opined that “even if the Federal government wanted to make State compliance with immigration detainers mandatory, the Tenth Amendment likely would prevent it from doing so.”

Monday’s ruling is moot for Lunn’s particular case, because ICE already had custody of him by the time it reached the high court, where four of the seven justices were appointed by Gov. Charlie Baker. Lunn was not deported and was subsequently released, according to the ACLU.

The court also did not endorse the ACLU’s contention that the hypothetical creation of a state statute to facilitate compliance with ICE detainer requests would contain “constitutional violations” because of the lack of judicial oversight on the detainers.

“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 court ruled. “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.”

Senate President Stan Rosenberg said last month that lawmakers were awaiting the Lunn ruling before taking action on a bill (S 1305/H 3269) that would limit the state’s cooperation with the federal government on immigration enforcement. “I don’t think anybody’s going to try to move on this issue until the Lunn case is resolved, because then we don’t know how much more has to be added to the law or how much is already actually addressed in the existing law,” Rosenberg said.