SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – In a letter to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Thursday, the chief justice of California’s Supreme Court asked federal immigration officials to stop pursuing undocumented immigrants at state courthouses.
“Courthouses should not be used as bait in the necessary enforcement of our country’s immigration laws,” Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye wrote, adding that she is concerned about “reports from some of our trial courts that immigration agents appear to be stalking undocumented immigrants in our courthouses to make arrests.”
Cantil-Sakauye’s letter, also sent to Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, doesn’t mention any specific courts. But a Judicial Council spokesman said the chief justice has been hearing from judges and attorneys, including some self-help attorneys, about heightened fears and increased sightings of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents hanging around courthouses.
“She’s concerned about access, public safety, and retaining the integrity and sanctity of the courthouse,” he said.
For this reason, Cantil-Sakauye created a California Immigration Information Resource Workgroup, chaired by Judge Samuel Feng in San Francisco and Judge Dalila Corral Lyons in Los Angeles. The group will collect all the immigration resources available in California, and help publicize that information through the courts and legal groups.
University of San Francisco law professor Bill Ong Hing, who runs the school’s Immigration and Deportation Defense Clinic, said ICE agents seeking out targets at courthouses isn’t new, but some appear to have been emboldened under the Trump administration.
“The message ICE is getting from Washington is basically just do what you want. There are definitely people in ICE who have been waiting for more authority,” Hing said in a phone interview Thursday.
He added that all immigrants, even those accused of crimes, have the same rights as U.S. citizens.
“But when you throw in witnesses, victims of crime, civil disputes, people who’ve been cheated by contractors – they rely on the courts, and if they are hearing that ICE hangs out at courts all of that gets discouraged. So it’s a big problem; people are getting hysterical right now, they are afraid.”
In San Francisco, court spokeswoman Ann Donlan said that the court is unaware of any ICE enforcement to date at any of its courthouses, but its judges are considering how the court will respond should any enforcement activities occur.
“The court shares the chief justice’s concerns and commend her for taking a strong stand on behalf of all Californians who rely on access to justice in our state courthouses,” Donlan said in a statement. “The SF bench will discuss potential ICE enforcement in San Francisco courthouses to determine what policy, if any, to adopt in response to the issue.”
In an email, Los Angeles Superior Court spokeswoman Mary Hearn said a detention had occurred at the Pasadena courthouse, and that state court officials have no constitutional authority to interfere with ICE.
“Courthouses are public buildings. The court’s authority to impose limitations on certain activities within our courthouses is limited by the U.S. Constitution, insofar as the court lacks the authority to prohibit federal law enforcement activity within courthouses,” she said.
Hing said ICE agents will sometimes use misleading tactics to trap undocumented people into revealing that they weren’t born in the United States.
“They mislead folks. In order for you to be deported they have to prove you were not born here, and if they don’t know anything about you, you win, Usually they only prove that because you’ve admitted it. I recommend people do not carry anything on them that proves where they were born,” Hing said.
While this information might be more readily available in the legal self-help centers in larger courts, people in California’s rural areas may be more vulnerable. Hing said USF’s immigration clinic will be spending the first week of April traveling up and down the Highway 99 corridor in the Central Valley to conduct “know your rights presentations” that teach people they can remain silent when approached by immigration officers.
In a statement, ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice said arrests are done on a case-by-case basis, “taking into account all aspects of the situation, including the prospective target’s criminal history; safety considerations; the viability of the leads on the individual’s whereabouts; and any sensitivities involving the prospective arrest location.”
Kice said agents only resort to arresting people at courthouses when they have no other options, and it’s usually done out of public view – although “this is not always possible,” she said.
She said a courthouse may be the best place to locate a potential target without a permanent residence or reliable address. It also lessens the risk for things to become violent, she said.
“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,” she said.
Kice noted that many of the arrests at or near courthouses have been of foreign nationals with federal criminal records who have evaded ICE officers because local law enforcement agencies refuse to abide by ICE requests to hold them in county jails.
“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,” she said. “Now that many law enforcement agencies no longer honor ICE detainers, these individuals, who often have significant criminal histories, are released onto the street, presenting a potential public safety threat.”
But Cantil-Sakauye said the majority of undocumented immigrants seeking justice in the courts pose no safety risk, and that ICE’s courthouse enforcement activities “are neither safe nor fair” and sow distrust in state government.
“[E]nforcement 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,” Cantil-Sakauye wrote. “They not only compromise our core values of fairness but they undermine the judiciary’s ability to provide equal access to justice.”
She added, “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.”
Hing said Cantil-Sakauye’s letter made an excellent point about courthouse arrests eroding trust in the judiciary.
“The court is supposed to be this objective entity where you appear to get a fair resolution of problems,” he said. “But when incidents like this happen their home, which is the courthouse, it is viewed as a threatening place rather than as a neutral place. It really does undermine what the court stands for.”