By Scott Malone
BOSTON (Reuters) - Massachusetts' top court is set to hear arguments on Tuesday on whether state authorities can detain illegal immigrants who come in contact with the legal system to buy time for federal authorities to take them into custody.
The arguments revolve around the case of Sreynuon Lunn, an illegal immigrant who was arrested last year in Boston on an unarmed robbery charge and ordered released in February after prosecutors failed to present a case. While he was waiting to be let out from his court holding cell, federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials took him into custody, citing a 2008 deportation order.
Backed by civil liberties groups, attorneys for Lunn argue that state and federal laws prohibit state authorities from complying with requests from ICE to hold illegal immigrants who are taken into custody for up to 48 hours longer than local laws allow to permit federal agents to take them into custody.
President Donald Trump has taken a tough tone on immigration, vowing to wall off the Mexican border, deport an estimated 11 million undocumented people living in the country and cut off Justice Department grants to cities that fail to help U.S. immigration authorities.
While Lunn's arrest by ICE makes the case moot, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court agreed to take it up because it raised "important, recurring, time-sensitive issues."
Immigration advocates argue that Massachusetts authorities who comply with ICE's detainer requests are violating state laws and the U.S. Constitution by carrying out an arrest without a warrant.
The state largely agreed with the plaintiffs' claims, saying that local law enforcement agencies lack the authority to hold people based on federal immigration requests.
"This court should hold that Massachusetts law precludes detaining persons solely on the basis of an ICE detainer," the state wrote in court papers ahead of Tuesday's hearing.
"Such a clarification of the law may require some (law-enforcement agencies) to re-assess their current policies and practices, and ICE will have to rely on other means to advance its immigration enforcement objectives."
Federal officials argued that long-established legal precedents allow state and local authorities to temporarily hold illegal immigrants to allow ICE to take them into custody.
"Without such cooperation, criminal aliens would be released back into the communities, endangering public safety," federal officials wrote in a court filing.
Lunn's attorneys declined to answer questions about his nationality or the status of the deportation case.
(Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Bernadette Baum)