In a letter to the head of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on Wednesday, 68 retired state and federal judges implored the agency “to restore confidence in safe access to the courts” by barring immigration enforcement arrests at courthouses.
“The public must be able to access courthouses safely and without fear of retribution.” —judges’ letter
“For courts to effectively do justice, ensure public safety, and serve their communities, the public must be able to access courthouses safely and without fear of retribution. For many, however, ICE’s courthouse arrests have made courts places to avoid,” declares the letter, organized with assistance from the Brennan Center for Justice.
The letter says a January directive (pdf) from ICE, which instructed authorities to only target certain undocumented people—”aliens with criminal convictions, gang members, national security or public safety threats, aliens who have been ordered removed from the United States but have failed to depart, and aliens who have re-entered the country illegally after being removed”—in court and refrain from arresting family members or witnesses, was a step in the right direction.
However, it charges, “interrupting criminal proceedings with civil immigration arrests undermines the justice system.” Thus, the judges are calling on ICE acting director Ronald Vitiello to extend the “sensitive location” designation—which applies to schools, hospitals, places of worship, and public demonstrations—to local, state, and federal courthouses.
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The need for such action appears especially significant under the Trump administration. As the letter notes, “Federal immigration arrests of individuals appearing in state and local courthouses are not unique to the current administration, but reports suggest there has been a dramatic increase in ICE presence in courthouses over the last two years.”
“Persons arrested include defendants facing criminal charges, survivors of domestic violence, persons disputing traffic tickets, and parents seeking to protect their children from unsafe living conditions.” —letter
That aligns with other ramped up immigration initiatives under President Donald Trump—who has provoked global disdain for his moves to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA); impose restrictions on travelers from certain Muslim-majority countries; make it harder for people to seek asylum in the U.S.; and forcibly separate migrant children from their parents.
In terms of immigrants targeted by ICE at courthouses, “persons arrested include defendants facing criminal charges, survivors of domestic violence, persons disputing traffic tickets, and parents seeking to protect their children from unsafe living conditions,” the letter points out, citing documented instances in at least 23 states.
ICE, for its part, doesn’t seem willing to reconsider its rules. In a statement to the Associated Press, agency spokeswoman Liz Johnson described courthouse arrests as “a routine practice for law enforcement agencies throughout the country,” and claimed that “because many jurisdictions no longer allow ICE to take custody of aliens inside of jails, courthouses are the next safest option.”
Addressing that position, the letter states: “We understand that ICE favors courthouse arrests because it considers courts to be safe environments where officers are confident they can operate without danger. But it is exactly that sense of safety that we as judges tried to foster for anyone seeking access to justice, and that we believe ICE’s courthouse activities put at risk.”
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