Thirty-three professors from Massachusetts law schools have signed on to an important legal opinion (PDF) drafted by Harvard Law students in support of the Massachusetts Trust Act (PDF). The bill seeks to restore the immigrant community’s trust in local law enforcement by limiting the role of local police authorities in the deportation process.

Comprehensive immigration reform has stalled in Congress while the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) continues to deport large numbers of noncitizens. But states and cities are stepping up to protect immigrant communities by resisting federal deportation programs such as Secure Communities.

One such pro-immigrant initiative is the Massachusetts Trust Act. If the bill passes, Massachusetts will join California, Connecticut, and cities like New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C. and New Orleans in exercising discretion about when to honor immigration detainer requests. DHS issues these requests to “hold” a noncitizen in jail even after she should be released, for example, if she is not charged with a crime or has completed her sentence.

In 2013, the Harvard Immigration Project (HIP), a student practice organization, joined a coalition of statewide immigrant community groups and national civil rights organizations devoted to passing the Massachusetts Trust Act. Students learned that in other jurisdictions, similar legal opinions were helpful in clarifying legal issues and gaining support from legislators and law enforcement officials. With support from HIP Supervising Attorney and Lecturer on Law Phil Torrey and Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic Director and Clinical Professor of Law, Professor Deborah Anker, the students researched complex issues from constitutional law to statutory interpretation, and drafted the letter which was circulated to local law professors seeking their support.

“It’s an honor to use our new legal skills to support a community-led effort to improve the climate for our immigrant neighbors,” said HIP Policy Committee member Lily Axelrod ’15.

The legal opinion clarifies that immigration detainers are not mandatory and explains the constitutional problems arising out of enforcement of these detainers. It also emphasizes the growing nationwide consensus that de-coupling immigration enforcement from state and local criminal enforcement is both legal and crucial to ensuring public safety.

The opinion was drafted by the HIP Policy Committee, which includes Eva Bitran ’14, Lily Axelrod ’15, Melanie Berdecia ’15, Antonia Domingo ’15, Sarah Adkins ’15, and Julina Guo ’15.

The Massachusetts Trust Act Coalition announced the opinion at a press conference on Wednesday, February 12 at the Unitarian Universalist Association. They delivered the opinion to the chairs of the Judiciary Committee and the Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security, and to the office of the Attorney General.

HIP is a student-led organization committed to providing direct legal services and policy advocacy. Law student members represent detained noncitizens in immigration bond hearings, assist with green card applications for refugees, and advocate for policies which respect human rights for immigrants.