BOSTON — Federal prosecutors charged a Massachusetts judge with obstruction of justice and perjury on Thursday, saying she prevented immigration agents from arresting an undocumented immigrant after a state court hearing by allowing him to leave the courthouse through a back door. 

The indictment marked an unusual escalation in the federal government’s strict immigration enforcement policy, and its battles with states and local governments that shelter migrants. The indictment accuses District Judge Shelley Richmond Joseph and a court officer, Wesley MacGregor of allowing the immigrant to leave the courthouse by a back door, and lying about it later. 

The charges come in the midst of a standoff between the Trump administration and dozens of American communities that have objected to providing the federal government information on residents’ immigration status.

The U.S. Attorney in Boston, Andrew Lelling, said the case is “about the rule of law,” not immigration. “We do not view this case in response to the public debate over immigration enforcement. There are reasonable arguments on both side of that debate, but this isn’t a policy seminar,” he said. 

Nonetheless, the charges drew swift criticism. Matthew Segal, the legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts called the indictment “very aggressive” and “completely outrageous.”  

Prosecutors alleged that during a April 2018 court hearing in Newtown, Mass., Joseph and MacGregor allowed the Dominican national, detained on drug and outstanding warrant charges, to leave the courthouse from a downstairs back door after the judge instructed an immigration agent to wait in the hallway outside her courtroom. 

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The migrant, identified in court documents by the initials A.S., had previously been deported from the United States twice before – in 2003 and in 2007 – and had been barred from re-entering the country until 2027.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials learned of the migrant’s detention following his March 30, 2018 arrest when local police submitted his fingerprints to the national law enforcement database. The fingerprint notification prompted ICE officials to issue a detainer, requesting local police to alert them within 48 hours of any planned release.

In court documents, federal prosecutors offered up a partial transcript of the court proceeding in which the judge, defense attorney and court clerk refer to the migrant’s status and the risk that he would be detained by immigration officials following the hearing.

“ICE is gonna get him?” Joseph asks the migrant’s defense attorney.

“Yeah,” the attorney responds.

Soon after the exchange, prosecutors allege, Joseph directed the courtroom recorder to be ‘turned off” for 52 seconds while the discussion continued.

The defense attorney later asked that the migrant be allowed to retrieve his property from a downstairs lockup.

Reminded that the ICE agent was waiting outside the courtroom, the judge allegedly said: “That’s fine. I’m not gonna allow them to come in here. But (the migrant) has been released on this.”

When he was escorted downstairs, prosecutors asserted that MacGregor used his security access card to release the migrant “out the back door.”

Prosecutors also charged that MacGregor lied to a grand jury about what happened.

Federal authorities launched the grand jury investigation within weeks after the 2018 hearing, and it continued through this month, according to court documents.

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In addition to the judge’s alleged actions at the hearing, prosecutors contend that Joseph made “false statements” about the matter to other state judges who inquired about the case, including a senior district judge who asked why the courtroom recording device had been disabled.

Joseph allegedly attributed it to “unfamiliarity” with the equipment.

All of that, prosecutors said, amounted to a violation of obstruction laws. “We cannot pick and choose the federal laws we follow, or use our personal views to justify violating the law,” Lelling said. 

“The actions of the judge in this incident are a detriment to the rule of law and highly offensive to the law enforcement officers of ICE who swear an oath to uphold our nation’s immigration laws,” said Todd M. Lyons, the acting ICE chief in Boston.

Lelling said that the migrant was caught about a month after leaving the Newton courthouse and is being processed for deportation.

Johnson reported from Washington.

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