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California chief justice to ICE: Stop ‘stalking’ immigrants at courthouses

California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye wrote the letter Thursday to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Department of Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly. (Robert Galbraith/Reuters)
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California’s top judge criticized federal immigration agents for using courthouses as “bait” — a place for “stalking” immigrants who “pose no risk to public safety.”

Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye wrote a letter Thursday to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Department of Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly amid reports of federal agents going to courthouses and scouting for immigrants who are not in the country legally.

Such incidents have been reported in California, Texas, OregonColorado and Arizona.

In the letter, Cantil-Sakauye requested that Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents stop arresting immigrants at courthouses.

“I am deeply concerned about reports from some of our trial courts that immigration agents appear to be stalking undocumented immigrants in our courthouses to make arrests,” she wrote. “… Courthouses should not be used as bait in the necessary enforcement of our country’s immigration laws.”

ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice said immigration officers make arrests at courthouses only after exhausting other options.

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“It’s important to note that many of the arrest targets ICE has sought out at or near courthouses are foreign nationals who have prior criminal convictions in the U.S.,” Kice said in a statement. “In years past, most of these individuals would have been turned over to ICE by local authorities upon their release from jail based on ICE detainers. … In such instances where deportation officers seek to conduct an arrest at a courthouse, every effort is made to take the person into custody in a secure area, out of public view, but this is not always possible.”

Kice said making an arrest at a courthouse eliminates the safety risks of detaining someone on the street.

“These individuals, who often have significant criminal histories, are released onto the street, presenting a potential public safety threat,” she said. “When ICE Fugitive Operations officers have to go out into the community to proactively locate these criminal aliens, regardless of the precautions they take, it needlessly puts our personnel and potentially innocent bystanders in harm’s way. … Because courthouse visitors are typically screened upon entry to search for weapons and other contraband, the safety risks for the arresting officers and for the arrestee are substantially diminished.”

Tracking down fugitives, Kice said, requires significant resources because many of them use aliases and don’t have viable addresses or places of employment.

“A courthouse may afford the most likely opportunity to locate a target and take him or her into custody,” Kice said.

A Department of Justice spokesman declined to comment, beyond noting that the agency will review the letter.

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Cantil-Sakauye’s letter echoes concerns raised across the country by some local and state officials who fear that ICE’s increased presence at courthouses may deter immigrants from coming to court for legal matters, such as testifying or seeking protective orders from alleged abusers.

San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon called the approach “very shortsighted” and said it has a “chilling impact” on the community, according to the Los Angeles Times.

In El Paso, county officials said federal agents made false or misleading claims when they arrested a transgender woman who had just obtained a protective order against her live-in partner, local media reported. Federal officials said in an affidavit that they detained Irvin Gonzalez on the street, but surveillance videos showed men in casual clothing detaining Gonzalez just outside the courtroom.

“I knew what the truth was when every witness — the lawyers and the judge — said that ICE was there,” El Paso County Judge Veronica Escobar said last month, the El Paso Times reported. “Then the video left absolutely no room for doubt. You see his hand on her arm. She was not free to go. She was in his custody.”

El Paso County Attorney Jo Anne Bernal said Gonzalez’s detention was alarming and could wind up keeping other domestic violence victims from coming forward.

“Our clients come to us at the lowest point of their lives,” Bernal said, according to the El Paso newspaper. “Many of them are so frightened of coming to us because of possible immigration concerns.”

After the incident in Texas, officials in Oregon’s Multnomah County asked for the public’s help in reporting ICE raids at courthouses.

“The possible increase in these incidents across the country is concerning,” county officials said in a statement last month. “Abusers often use threats of deportation to prevent their victims from seeking help. Courthouses should be safe locations for people to access justice, particularly people who are fleeing violent relationships.”

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In Denver, ICE agents in plain clothes were seen outside a courtroom waiting to pick up a Mexican national who was in court for a sentencing hearing for stealing tools in 2015, according to NBC affiliate KUSA.

In Portland, Ore., three ICE agents, also in plain clothes, watched a Mexican national inside the Multnomah County courthouse for several minutes before one of the man’s attorneys told the agents he would cooperate. Ivan Rodriguez Resendiz told the Oregonian that he went to court because he’d violated his probation by driving under the influence.

Rodriguez Resendiz was not arrested that day, but the agents followed him and his attorney to the lawyer’s office, the Oregonian reported.

“It was disturbing to say the least,” Rodriguez Resendiz’s attorney, Jennifer List, told the Oregonian. “They didn’t go up and say, ‘We’re ICE. And by the way, we’re interested in talking to your client.’ They don’t say anything. They aren’t upfront. They aren’t wearing a badge.”

In her letter, Cantil-Sakauye, the first Filipino American and the second woman to lead the California Supreme Court, said the majority of undocumented immigrants who show up in court “pose no risk to public safety.” Stalking courthouses to arrest them, she wrote, is “neither safe nor fair.”

“They not only compromise our core values of fairness but they undermine the judiciary’s ability to provide equal access to justice,” she wrote.

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Here’s Cantil-Sakauye’s full letter:

Dear Attorney General Sessions and Secretary Kelly:

As Chief Justice of California responsible for the safe and fair delivery of justice in our state, I am deeply concerned about reports from some of our trial courts that immigration agents appear to be stalking undocumented immigrants in our courthouses to make arrests.

Our courthouses serve as a vital forum for ensuring access to justice and protecting public safety. Courthouses should not be used as bait in the necessary enforcement of our country’s immigration laws.

Our courts are the main point of contact for millions of the most vulnerable Californians in times of anxiety, stress, and crises in their lives. Crime victims, victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence, witnesses to crimes who are aiding law enforcement, limited-English speakers, unrepresented litigants, and children and families all come to our courts seeking justice and due process of law. As finders of fact, trial courts strive to mitigate fear to ensure fairness and protect legal rights. Our work is critical for ensuring public safety and the efficient administration of justice.

Most Americans have more daily contact with their state and local governments than with the federal government, and I am concerned about the impact on public trust and confidence in our state court system if the public feels that our state institutions are being used to facilitate other goals and objectives, no matter how expedient they may be.

Each layer of government — federal, state, and local — provides a portion of the fabric of our society that preserves law and order and protects the rights and freedoms of the people. The separation of powers and checks and balances at the various levels and branches of government ensure the harmonious existence of the rule of law.

The federal and state governments share power in countless ways, and our roles and responsibilities are balanced for the public good. As officers of the court, we judges uphold the constitutions of both the United States and California, and the executive branch does the same by ensuring that our laws are fairly and safely enforced. But 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. They not only compromise our core value of fairness but they undermine the judiciary’s ability to provide equal access to justice. I respectfully request that you refrain from this sort of enforcement in California’s courthouses.

— Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye

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