Victory! First Circuit Rejects Sanctuary Courthouses

Press Releases

September 2, 2020

Agrees with IRLI that federal law does not protect dangerous aliens in state courts

WASHINGTON—Yesterday, the First Circuit Court of Appeals vacated an injunction that a Massachusetts federal district judge had issued against arrests of aliens by U.S. Immigration and Customs (ICE) officers in courthouses in Massachusetts. The Immigration Reform Law Institute (IRLI) had filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the appeal urging just that result.

ICE officers prefer to arrest dangerous aliens inside courthouses because the environment is controlled, and the aliens already have been checked for weapons. But, in their lawsuit, private activists and Massachusetts public officials advanced—and the district court accepted—an outlandish argument for protecting dangerous aliens from such arrests: Centuries ago, the argument runs, private litigants were often able to detain their opponents using civil arrests. To assure the smooth functioning of courts, a rule grew up that such arrests could not be made when a litigant was in court on other business. The plaintiffs claimed that, in 1952, when Congress authorized civil immigration arrests, it incorporated this rule (without mentioning it) in the law, and thereby banned immigration arrests in courthouses.

Surveying legal history, however, the First Circuit found that this rule against private civil arrests (which had become obsolete by 1952) in courthouses had never been thought to cover arrests by the government pursuing its sovereign interests. Since ICE, when it arrests removable aliens in courthouses, is pursuing the sovereign interests of the United States in securing its borders, the rule did not apply to it, had not been incorporated by Congress, and provided no basis for the injunction.

After vacating the injunction, though, the First Circuit sent the case back to the district court to rule on another claim the plaintiffs had made: that Massachusetts law bans courthouse immigration arrests, and Congress had failed to make a clear enough statement that it was overriding this supposed state law when it authorized civil immigration arrests nationwide, without making any exceptions based on location.

“That such a bizarre argument, based on limits on the long-obsolete practice of civil arrests in private lawsuits, was actually adopted by a federal district court just shows the lengths to which activists, at various levels, will go to keep alien felons in their state, and in the country,” said Dale L. Wilcox, executive director and general counsel of IRLI. “We are pleased with the way the First Circuit dispatched that claim. The other argument the district court will now consider is no better, and we will be there to make sure it is refuted just as decisively.”

The case is Ryan v. ICE, No. 19-1838 (First Circuit).

For additional information, contact: Brian Lonergan • 202-232-5590 • blonergan@irli.org

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