Attorney General Jeff Sessions, left, and Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly fired back at California’s chief justice for criticizing the use of courthouses to arrest undocumented immigrants. (Susan Walsh/AP)

Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly fired back at California’s chief justice for criticizing the use of courthouses to arrest undocumented immigrants, writing in a letter released Friday that the practice was only necessary because the state was so uncooperative on immigration enforcement matters.

Responding to a missive from California Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye, Sessions and Kelly wrote that the characterization of Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers “stalking” undocumented immigrants at courthouses was “particularly troubling,” and that officers were within their rights to arrest undocumented immigrants in public places.

They blamed state and local officials for enacting “statutes and ordinances designed to specifically prohibit or hinder ICE from enforcing immigration law” and “denying requests by ICE officers and agents to enter prisons and jails to make arrests.” Such policies, they wrote, made it necessary for officers to arrest undocumented immigrants at courthouses.

“We would encourage you to express your concerns to the Governor of California and local officials who have enacted policies that occasionally necessitate ICE officers and agents to make arrests at courthouses and other public places,” the two men wrote.

(The California Channel)

Responding to their letter, Cantil-Sakauye said in a statement she appreciated the reply but “making arrests at courthouses, in my view, undermines public safety because victims and witnesses will fear coming to courthouses to help enforce the law.”

“I am disappointed that despite local and state public safety issues at stake, courthouses are not on ICE’s ‘sensitive areas’ list that includes schools, churches, and hospitals,” she said.

The back-and-forth marks an escalation in the burgeoning battle between federal and some state governments over immigration enforcement matters, with both sides staking out aggressive postures.

Earlier this week, Sessions threatened to strip Justice Department funding from what are known as “sanctuary city” jurisdictions that don’t comply with a particular federal law about sharing information with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The city of Seattle sued over the matter, arguing that President Trump’s executive order on the topic was unclear.

State attorneys general in Hawaii and Washington, meanwhile, have played a key role in the court battle to block President Trump’s executive orders banning immigration and other travel to citizens of particular Muslim-majority countries.

Cecillia Wang, deputy legal director at the ACLU, said the Justice and Homeland Security departments seemed to be “doubling down on their confrontational attitude toward the states,” which she said was “particularly concerning given that they’re speaking to the chief justice of a state Supreme Court who’s expressed a serious and legitimate concern.”

Cantil-Sakauye wrote to Sessions and Kelly earlier this month that she was “deeply concerned” about reports that “immigration agents appear to be stalking undocumented immigrants in our courthouses to make arrests.” Such incidents have occurred in California, Oregon and Texas, among other places.

(Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

Advocates saw the case in Texas as particularly egregious because the woman detained had gone to court to file a protective order against an alleged abuser, though she herself reportedly had a criminal record and had been previously deported. Cantil-Sakauye pointed to victims and witnesses in particular in her letter. A spokesman for the California judicial council said she was concerned not just that those people might be arrested but that any immigration enforcement in courthouses would deter legitimate use of the court system.

“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,” Cantil-Sakauye wrote. “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.”

ICE enforcement policy prohibits initiating removal proceedings against people “known to be the immediate victim or witness to a crime” unless there are special circumstances or aggravating factors.

Gillian Christensen, a Homeland Security spokeswoman, said the agency has for years — predating the Trump administration — arrested undocumented immigrants at courthouses, though they have focused on those convicted of crimes. The arrests have increased recently, Christensen said, as jurisdictions have refused to honor ICE detainer requests.

Another reason, Sessions and Kelly wrote, is safety: People at courthouses are generally screened for weapons, so arresting them there is preferable to approaching them on the street or at their homes.

Cantil-Sakauye wrote that she was 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.”

Wang, of the ACLU, said while ICE might have in previous administration made arrests in courthouses, President Trump had explicitly given agents wider latitude with his January executive order to use aggressive tactics and target even non-criminals.

“What’s new is that, as a matter of official policy coming from President Trump and Secretary Kelly, individual agents have been given free rein to make arrests as they see fit, and that I think has caused a pattern of abusive arrest tactics,” Wang said.