is massachusetts a sanctuary state

Is Massachusetts a Sanctuary State?

Massachusetts grapples with a complex identity when it comes to being a sanctuary for immigrants. The term “sanctuary state” tends to mean a region limiting cooperation with federal immigration enforcement, but its application is not black and white in Massachusetts. While the state has no clear sanctuary law, various policies, and a 2017 court ruling, lend it a sanctuary-like status. Plus, several of its cities openly identify as sanctuary cities.

massachusetts sanctuary policies

What is a Sanctuary State?

A sanctuary state is generally considered one that adopts policies restricting cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration authorities to protect undocumented immigrants from deportation. This designation is not legally clear-cut and can vary in practice, with some states officially proclaiming sanctuary status and others having policies that implicitly act in a similar way.

What is Massachusetts’ Sanctuary Status?

In 2017, Massachusetts’ Supreme Judicial Court ruled that law enforcement couldn’t hold individuals solely on ICE detainer requests without additional criminal charges.

While this doesn’t categorize Massachusetts as a full sanctuary state legislatively, this and similar policies present a degree of protection for immigrants and create a quasi-sanctuary status.

Proposals for official sanctuary status have existed but not been passed, displaying a mixed stance on the issue within the state. Some politicians use the term “sanctuary state” for Massachusetts, while others, like Governor Charlie Baker, have resisted the official label and related legislation. 1

Jurisdiction: Massachusetts
Date Enacted: July 2017
Policy Decision Maker: Supreme Judicial Court
Detainer Policy: In ruling on the Lunn v. Commonwealth case, the high court concluded that state law “provides no authority for Massachusetts court officers to arrest and hold an individual solely on the basis of a Federal civil immigration detainer, beyond the time that the individual would otherwise be entitled to be released from State custody.”
Source: WBUR

sanctuary cities in massachusetts

Which Massachusetts Cities and Towns are ‘Sanctuary Cities’?

Several Massachusetts cities explicitly identify as sanctuary cities, including Boston, Cambridge, and Northampton.

These cities have enacted policies that limit their cooperation with federal immigration enforcement to various degrees.

For example, Boston’s Trust Act prevents city resources from being used to enforce immigration matters which are under ICE’s jurisdiction, whereas Cambridge has adopted and re-affirmed its sanctuary status multiple times since initially declaring it in 1985.2

“Massachusetts is not a sanctuary state, but there have been proposals for it on Beacon Hill. A sanctuary city or state is a location that limits cooperation with federal immigration laws. There are eight cities in the state that are sanctuary cities. They are Amherst, Boston, Cambridge, Chelsea, Concord, Newton, Northampton, and Somerville. What they do is legal, and how much they cooperate can vary from city to city. Some cities don’t share information.

Some cities go as far as not honoring what the government sees as mandatory detainers, but aren’t actually mandatory,” details Ragini Shah, a Suffolk law professor and director of the university’s Immigration Clinic.

Shah says no state is truly a sanctuary state, but that all states comply with federal laws even if some cities in their state do not.3

Click below on the local jurisdictions for more info on sanctuary cities in Massachusetts:

Jurisdiction: Amherst, Massachusetts
Date Enacted: May 2012
Policy Decision Maker: Bylaw Regarding Sharing of Information with Federal Agencies
Detainer Policy: To the extent permissible by law, will not honor immigration detainer requests.
Source: ICE Document

Jurisdiction: Boston, Massachusetts
Date Enacted: August 2014
Policy Decision Maker: Boston Trust Act
Detainer Policy: Will not honor ICE detainer without a criminial warrant.
Source: ICE Document

Jurisdiction: Cambridge, Massachusetts
Date Enacted: June 2014
Policy Decision Maker: City Council Resolution
Detainer Policy: Will not honor ICE detainer unless in cases where immigration agents have a criminal warrant or Cambridge officials have a legitimate law enforcement purpose related to immigration.
Source: ICE Document

Jurisdiction: Lawrence, Massachusetts
Date Enacted: August 2015
Policy Decision Maker: City Council
Detainer Policy: Will not honor ICE detainer without a criminal warrant. Has preliminarily been found to have laws, policies, or practices that may violate 8 U.S.C. 1373 by the DOJ.
Source: Eagle TribuneDOJ

NOTE: The U.S. code in question, 8 U.S.C. 1373, makes it illegal for local governments to restrict sharing or receiving information about someone’s immigration status with the Department of Homeland Security (specifically, Immigration and Customs Enforcement or ICE).

Jurisdiction: Newton, Massachusetts
Date Enacted: February 2017
Policy Decision Maker: City Council
Detainer Policy: Will not detain an individual unless they have “an outstanding criminal warrant, has a prior conviction for a serious violent felony, is being investigated for terrorism, or if there is a law enforcement or public safety purpose to do so that is not related to the enforcement of civil immigration law…”
Source: Commonwealth

Jurisdiction: Northhampton, Massachusetts
Date Enacted: August 2014
Policy Decision Maker: Mayoral Executive Order
Detainer Policy: Will not honor ICE detainer that non-criminal and not subject to a judicially issued warrant.
Source: ICE Document

Jurisdiction: Somerville, Massachusetts
Date Enacted: May 2014
Policy Decision Maker: Mayoral Executive Order and Board of Alderman Ordinance
Detainer Policy: Will not honor ICE detainer unless ICE provides criminal warrant or if there is a legitimate law enforcement purpose beyond immigration status for keeping a suspect in custody after bail is posted or a judge releases the individual.
Source: ICE Document

Map of Sanctuary Cities in USA

massachusetts sanctuary state

Massachusetts Sanctuary Policy FAQs

Is Boston a sanctuary city?

Boston, Massachusetts, is considered a sanctuary city. Boston has policies in place that limit cooperation with federal immigration authorities regarding the enforcement of immigration laws.

Is Martha’s Vineyard a sanctuary location for immigrants?

Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the coast of Massachusetts, includes several towns. In 2017, at least three of these towns—Edgartown, Chilmark, and Tisbury—voted to adopt sanctuary policies. These policies allow the towns to limit cooperation with federal immigration officials, but it’s important to note that Martha’s Vineyard is not a city; it is an island consisting of multiple small towns. The sanctuary status applies only to the towns that have adopted such policies, and not all towns on Martha’s Vineyard have done so. Additionally, Massachusetts, as a state, does not have a sanctuary policy, but some cities within the state have adopted sanctuary policies.

Is Lawrence Massachusetts a Sanctuary City?

Lawrence, Massachusetts, is considered a sanctuary city. Lawrence has policies in place that limit cooperation with federal immigration authorities regarding the enforcement of immigration laws.

Can undocumented immigrants get a driver’s license in Massachusetts?

Yes, undocumented immigrants in Massachusetts can obtain a driver’s license. Massachusetts has a policy allowing undocumented immigrants to apply for and receive a standard driver’s license, which can be used for driving purposes but is not a Real ID-compliant license.

Where are most Massachusetts immigrants from?

Massachusetts sees a diverse array of immigrants, with notable populations from Central and South America, especially in recent events like the Martha’s Vineyard situation. Over the years, immigrants from Ukraine, Afghanistan, India, Turkey, and Russia have also sought refuge or residence in the state.

Why are there so many immigrants in Massachusetts?

Several factors make Massachusetts a target destination for immigrants, including its existing diverse immigrant communities, its numerous policies providing some protections to immigrants, and the presence of sanctuary cities within its boundaries.

Is Massachusetts a right to shelter state?

Yes, Massachusetts is known as a right to shelter state. This means that the state provides shelter to families with children and pregnant women who meet specific criteria and find themselves without a safe place to stay.

Which states are pro-sanctuary?

Sanctuary states, often referred to as “pro sanctuary” states, are those in the United States that have implemented policies to limit their cooperation with federal immigration authorities regarding the enforcement of immigration laws. As of my last knowledge update in September 2021, there were 11 sanctuary states in the U.S. These states include California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington. However, it’s crucial to stay informed about the latest developments in each state’s immigration policies, as they may change over time.

Immigrants Transported to Massachusetts:

is marthas vineyard a sanctuary state

In September 2022, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis chartered two flights from Texas to transport 49 migrants, primarily Venezuelans, to Martha’s Vineyard, a liberal enclave in Massachusetts. This move was intended to draw attention to the surge in migration along the U.S.-Mexico border and put pressure on Democratic leaders.4

However, the migrants were misled, as they were initially told they were headed to Boston or Seattle for jobs and housing. They were dropped off on Martha’s Vineyard at the end of the summer season, with no jobs or accommodations available.

Volunteers on the island helped the migrants temporarily, but most of them eventually left for other parts of Massachusetts and the country. However, some of the migrants decided to stay on the island, forming bonds with the local community. They found jobs and a place to live, contributing to the island’s workforce.5

Conclusion: Massachusetts Sanctuary Policies

Massachusetts dwells in a nuanced space regarding sanctuary status – it operates with policies that protect immigrants to a certain extent without officially designating itself as a sanctuary state. While some cities within Massachusetts openly declare themselves as sanctuaries, a cohesive state-level stance is less clear.

Both local and national politicians utilize the state’s ambiguous status for varying rhetoric, making Massachusetts a compelling study in the diverse approaches and attitudes towards sanctuary policies in the USA.

Immigration policies can change over time, so I recommend checking the most recent information to confirm sanctuary status or any potential policy changes.

Related: Sanctuary States & Cities in USA


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  • Samuel Coleman

    Samuel Coleman, a U.S. native, is the co-founder of My Immigration Services, a company dedicated to assisting individuals through the complex U.S. immigration process. Using his in-depth knowledge of visas and relocation, he helps people navigate the challenges of moving to the USA.

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