Feds Barred From Arresting Immigrants at San Diego Federal Courthouses

One of two federal courthouses for the Southern District of California. (Courthouse News photo / Bianca Bruno)

SAN DIEGO (CN) — Immigration agents have been barred from arresting immigrants at federal courthouses in the Southern District of California, a practice the judge found “degrades the administration of justice.”

U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw, a George W. Bush appointee, granted a temporary restraining order blocking a 2018 Trump administration policy allowing Border Patrol agents to arrest immigrants at the conclusion of criminal cases in order to initiate deportation or removal proceedings.

The policy also allowed Border Patrol agents to arrest undocumented family members or witnesses present at the court hearings.

Prior to 2017, the federal government only made immigration arrests at or near courthouses for “Priority 1” undocumented immigrants — individuals deemed the highest priority for deportation because they were “aliens who pose a danger to national security or a risk to public safety.”

But under the Trump administration’s increased immigration enforcement, Immigration and Customs Enforcement issued a directive to its agents to conduct civil arrests on courthouse premises, increasing immigration arrests exponentially and leading to a decrease in court appearances by immigration defendants.

Attorney Jeremy Delicino represents plaintiff Elizeo Velazquez-Hernandez and said in an interview while he doesn’t have the “precise figures” on how many immigration arrests had been made in the federal court in San Diego under the policy, “it’s safe to say it’s been dozens.”

“We applaud Judge Sabraw’s decision and the fact it recognizes courts are indeed our country’s sanctuaries,” Delicino said.

“Courts are supposed to be places of refuge for disputes safe from authorities and safe from arrest and this decision is a good starting point to making that manifest,” he added.

Delicino said he expects the incoming Biden administration will rescind the policy, considering the Trump administration upended “a privilege against courthouse arrests that has spanned centuries.” But during the court hearing on the matter, Delicino said Justice Department attorneys would not confirm whether the policy will be reversed come January.

In his 20-page order, Sabraw found “this practice deters parties and witnesses from coming to court, instills fear, is inconsistent with the decorum of the court, and degrades the administration of justice.”

He found the Trump administration policy violates the rule against civil courthouse arrest enshrined in the Immigration and Nationality Act.

Sabraw noted the common law practice stems from English courts in the 15th century recognizing civil arrest deterred parties from coming to court voluntarily and was inconsistent with court decorum. The practice was adopted by American common law “where it was recognized as well-established into the 20th century,” Sabraw wrote.

The judge found the “essence” of the privilege not to conduct civil arrests at the courthouse is “the sanctity of the court.”

“The Executive may have sovereign power over immigration enforcement, but the Executive does not have sovereign power over the court,” Sabraw wrote.

He was not swayed by the government’s argument its arrests were not disruptive because they were conducted at the conclusion of criminal proceedings, unlike ICE arrests at state courthouses under the same policy which delayed and disrupted ongoing proceedings.

“The court, as the third, independent branch of government, is a sanctuary — a place where parties and witnesses must be free from interference and intimidation to present their claims and defenses,” Sabraw wrote.

“To fulfill its constitutional duties, the court must be open and accessible in reality, and in perception. The specter of immigration sweeps at the courthouse cuts decidedly against both of these duties,” he added, noting “the court is not an ‘arrest pad’ nor will it ever be.”

Sabraw also denied the government’s contention the facts of each individual plaintiff’s case must be reviewed to determine whether the privilege to be free from arrest at the Southern District of California courthouse should apply to them.

“This is a case about an agency policy, not the lone arrest of a single defendant or litigant required to be in court,” Sabraw wrote.

Homeland Security did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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