The federal government should stop using courthouses as “bait” to catch undocumented people seeking justice, the chief justice of the California Supreme Court wrote in an open letter Thursday.
“Enforcement policies that include stalking courthouses and arresting undocumented immigrants, the vast majority of whom pose no risk to public safety, are neither safe nor fair,” Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye wrote, asking that the federal government stop these tactics. “They not only compromise our core value of fairness but they undermine the judiciary’s ability to provide equal access to justice.”
There have been a rash of reports of immigration officers hanging around courthouse proceedings since Donald Trump’s inauguration.
Last month, New York attorneys said they saw Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents sitting through misdemeanor court hearings. ICE officials were also videotaped lingering outside a Denver courtroom. And in Pasadena, Calif., a lawyer said ICE agents arrested his client as he walked out a courtroom. The lawyer told the Los Angeles Times that he’d never seen ICE make an arrest inside a courthouse before.
In another highly publicized case in El Paso, Texas, a woman seeking a protective custody order against her abusive boyfriend was detained afterwards by immigration agents who sat through the hearing, courthouse officials say. In a press call shortly after the detention, those officials told reporters they believed that the immigration agents knew the woman was there because the boyfriend tipped them off.
“None of us can recall an incident where immigrant authorities made their presence known inside a courtroom in this courthouse and especially not in a courtroom that is reserved for victims of domestic violence,” El Paso County Attorney Jo Anne Bernal said at the time. “We are hoping that this is an isolated incident. We are fearful that it is not.”
Cantil-Sakauye’s letter echoed a similar concern for what she called the “millions of the most vulnerable Californians in times of anxiety, stress, and crises in their lives.” The justice pointed out that the undocumented people in California’s courthouses are often victims or witnesses to crimes who may not speak English or even have lawyers to represent them.
An ICE spokeswoman confirmed to NBC News that agents do sometimes detain undocumented immigrants in courthouses, but said it was usually only after they’d exhausted other ways to make the arrest.
Jennie Pasquarella, director of immigrants’ rights for the ACLU of California, issued a statement supporting Cantil-Sakauye. “Courthouses must be a safe space,” she wrote. “Period.”
“Our courthouses serve as a vital forum for ensuring access to justice and protecting public safety,” Cantil-Sakauye wrote. “Courthouses should not be used as bait in the necessary enforcement of our country’s immigration laws.”