Yvonne Abraham

Useless cruelty, committed in our name, and a lessening of our values

Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins (left) and Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan have joined a lawsuit saying that ICE agents have been using Massachusetts courthouses to trap and arrest undocumented immigrants.
Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff
Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins (left) and Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan have joined a lawsuit saying that ICE agents have been using Massachusetts courthouses to trap and arrest undocumented immigrants.

Let’s not kid ourselves.

The federal government is inflicting needless suffering on undocumented immigrants in our name, and making a mockery of values this nation is supposed to revere. It is violating their rights and denying their very humanity.

And yet plenty of Americans seem just fine with all of that.


We see it playing out at the border, of course, where thousands of children were taken from their parents with no clear plan to reunite them all — the appalling fulfillment of President Trump’s cold brutality toward immigrants, especially those fleeing here from the south.

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More insidiously, it is unfolding in our courthouses, too. And this goes far beyond the case that caught most of the headlines of late, the outrageous indictment of Judge Shelley Joseph, who allegedly helped an undocumented man in her Newton court escape the clutches of ICE.

Outrages are epidemic. A federal lawsuit filed this week alleges that ICE agents have been using this state’s courthouses to trap and arrest undocumented immigrants, and that, as a result, those immigrants and others are afraid to use the justice system, leaving us all less safe. Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins and Middlesex DA Marian Ryan have joined public defenders and immigration advocates in the suit.

ICE officers are such fixtures in courthouses that those who work there can ID them even though they are generally in plain clothes, claims the suit, which is replete with sickening examples of arrests, not only of an immigration officer’s target, but of any immigrant — undocumented or otherwise — who might have the misfortune to be present. This past January, for example, ICE officers handcuffed a defendant and his uncle at Middlesex Superior Court as they waited for a criminal hearing to begin. By the time the officers discovered the uncle was not subject to removal, they had lost the key to his cuffs and had to saw them off.

Such incidents send ripples of panic out into immigrant communities: The lawsuit tells of defendants — all of whom have a right to due process — failing to appear for proceedings that might exonerate them, for fear of being arrested by immigration officers. It tells of domestic violence victims who refuse to seek restraining orders against their abusers because they are afraid of a civil immigration arrest. And of witnesses too afraid to help prosecutors make cases.


The fear is so widespread, according to the complaint, that immigrant advocates at the Chelsea Collaborative have had to set up a special mediation program to resolve disputes for clients who will not enter a courthouse. And bad actors have less to worry about. A scammer who allegedly stole hundreds of thousands from residents by convincing them to invest in a bogus company — and who threatened to report those who challenged him to immigration authorities — continues to skate. Victims of wage theft and other workplace violations refuse to file court claims, allowing employers to exploit them with impunity.

“The aim of these courthouse arrests is to visit brutality on people, and destabilize the community,” says Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, head of Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, which is representing the Chelsea Collaborative.

No doubt some will look at these arrests — and the federal obstruction charges against Judge Joseph — and say all is as it should be. They knew what they were getting into when they entered the country without permission, and all that. That’ll teach ’em, etc.

Such hard-heartedness takes no note of the swath of damage done. Blocking access to justice for undocumented immigrants hurts so many. It hurts the people in their families, their neighborhoods, and beyond — many who aren’t even immigrants at all. It erodes the very meaning of America.

Just as the cruelty at the border has done nothing to stop people fleeing Central American countries, ICE’s aggressive courthouse tactics do nothing to make us — any of us — safer.


But to acknowledge that futility requires that we see undocumented immigrants as fully human. And how could you do that, and fail to see the hypocrisy of a president whose own company profited off the undocumented workers he derides? How could you do that, and not be crushed at the cruelty at the border?

You couldn’t. It’s as simple, and devastating, as that.

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.