The comments have troubled civil liberty and immigration advocates in Ohio, and come amid a larger struggle nationwide over the way overlapping patchworks of jurisdictions are contending with immigration enforcement during the Trump administration. The administration has focused on harsher immigration enforcement at the Mexico border and fast-tracked deportations.
Ruehlman could not immediately be reached for comment Saturday but has given several interviews confirming and defending his actions.
“I don’t see where the outrage is,” Ruehlman said in a Friday interview with WLWT in Cincinnati. “Number one, they’re an illegal alien. They’re not supposed to be here, so they’re breaking the law. Number two, they’re in front of me for a felony.”
His unprompted admission came a little more than a week after Cincinnati TV station WCPO broke the news that plainclothes ICE officials were entering the Hamilton County Courthouse to detain undocumented immigrants. ICE reportedly began its operation without alerting the county clerk or sheriff — something it is not required to do, though it’s considered a professional courtesy.
In a statement Saturday to The Washington Post, ICE spokesman Khaalid Walls said under current policy, courthouses are not considered “sensitive locations” — places like churches, schools and hospitals, where immigration officials are generally discouraged from operating without prior approval.
“ICE officers have been provided broad at-large arrest authority by Congress and may lawfully arrest removable aliens in courthouses,” Walls said. “This arrest authority is central to ICE’s mission, which focuses first on criminal aliens.”
Amid outcry about the practice, Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Neil denied his office was involved in any tipoff and noted in a Jan. 15 statement that he lacks the authority to bar another law enforcement agency from entering a courthouse that’s open to the public.
“My primary concern is that anyone who is a victim or witness to a crime should be able to fully participate in the judicial process to further justice and remove dangerous criminals from our streets,” Neil said.
ICE has the discretion to take defendants into custody and hold them, from their immigration proceedings through deportation if they’re ultimately removed, before their unrelated criminal trial is finished, said Heather Prendergast, an Ohio immigration attorney and the former chair of the pro-immigrant rights American Immigration Lawyers Association’s ICE Liaison Committee.
“If the process is complete and they’re found guilty, that’s one thing. But when ICE doesn’t allow [defendants] to particulate in the court process and have a resolution and they get deported, they have an unresolved criminal case in the U.S. still,” Prendergast told The Post. “It denies the victims of crimes the opportunity see justice done against the people who perpetrated those crimes.”
Last year, top judges in Massachusetts asked ICE to stop deporting criminal defendants awaiting trial after prosecutors were forced to abandon at least a dozen cases involving serious crimes because the defendant was taken out of the country. In another case, the state was forced to spend “extraordinary resources,” according to WGBH, after a man was deported a month before his next hearing in a child rape case; the state had to work for five years to get him extradited to the United States to face trial.
The potential disruptions to the local criminal justice system are just part of the critics’ concern. Prendergast described Ruehlman’s actions as “shocking and not typical” of a judge.
“I just question why someone who is supposed to be a neutral arbiter of justice [steps] into what is arguably a law enforcement role based on a suspicion. I think it may raise some issues with whether he is indeed a neutral fact finder,” she said.
Ruehlman’s justifications — targeting non-English speakers or those accused of drug crimes — are specious reasons at best, Prendergast said.
“There are a number of people living in this country legally who don’t speak English; there are a number of undocumented people living here who speak English perfectly. I don’t know how many Americans are incarcerated for drug crimes, but I suspect that it’s significantly more than those who are undocumented.”
Ruehlman previously said his methods were not racial profiling but “common sense.”
“They speak Spanish, they’re charged with carrying a lot of drugs and they’re not from here,” Ruehlman told WCPO. “It’s pretty clear they’re illegal immigrants, you know, and if it turns out they are a citizen, then there’s no harm, no foul.”
At least one of Ruehlman’s judicial colleagues has publicly said he won’t call ICE on defendants; it’s unclear if judicial groups in Ohio have taken a position on Ruehlman’s actions.
Jessica Vaughan, the director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, a conservative think tank that favors restricting immigration, said while Ruehlman’s admission may be rare, the attitude that underlies it is not.
For years, cooperating with ICE or otherwise facilitating its movements was the norm, Vaughan told The Post. That began to shift around 2014 in the wake of the success of Secure Communities, a controversial ICE program that enabled the FBI to share fingerprint information from state and local law enforcement arrests with federal authorities who could cross-check the data with immigration violations.
But Vaughn said noncooperation remains the exception.
“Noncooperation or being oblivious to immigration status is the aberration today: While we hear about sanctuary judges or ordinances or prohibitions on interactions with ICE, that’s the exception. There are about 300 out of 3,000 counties that don’t call ICE,” Vaughan said. The only thing unusual about Ruehlman’s action is that he’s publicized it, she said.
“This is a different kind of virtue signalizing where this judge wants to raise his hand and say, ‘I’m not one of these sanctuary judges,’ ” Vaughan said. “He seems confident this is something people in his jurisdiction approve of.”
Ruehlman has continued to defend his decision, which he told the Cincinnati Enquirer results in about a dozen calls a year.
“I’m batting a thousand. I haven’t got one wrong yet,” he said.
César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández, a University of Denver law professor who wrote “Migrating to Prison: America’s Obsession with Locking Up Immigrants,” released last month, said he doubts Ruehlman’s track record of successfully identifying undocumented immigrants is as accurate as he claims.
“Apparently, he can do something that’s quite difficult for us who spend a great amount of time navigating ICE’s arrest and deportation practices,” García Hernández said. “Even if that’s true, I think he needs to have a little humility and understanding that just because he’s been right in the past, there’s no guarantee he will be in the future.”