Federal immigration authorities formalized a policy Wednesday to send deportation agents to federal, state and local courthouses to make arrests, dismissing complaints from judges and advocacy groups that it instills fear among crime victims, witnesses and family members.
The two-page directive from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said it will enter courthouses only for specific targets, such as convicted criminals, gang members, public safety threats and immigrants who have been previously deported or ordered to leave. Family, friends and witnesses won't be picked up for deportation but ICE leaves a caveat for "special circumstances."
The policy, signed by ICE acting director Thomas Homan, says immigration agents should generally avoid arrests in non-criminal areas of the court, like family court and small claims, unless a supervisor approves.
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ICE — in a not-so-subtle jab at "sanctuary cities" that limit work with immigration authorities — said "increasing unwillingness of some jurisdictions to cooperate with ICE in the safe and orderly transfer of targeted aliens inside their prisons and jails has necessitated additional at-large arrests."
Immigration agents made courtroom arrests under the Obama administration but the pace appears to have picked up under President Donald Trump, whose administration has seen a roughly 40 percent surge in arrests overall and has casted a much wider net.
In March, California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye asked ICE to stay out of her courts, writing, "Courthouses should not be used as bait in the necessary enforcement of our country's immigration laws."
On Wednesday, Cantil-Sakauye sounded modestly encouraged: "If followed correctly, this written directive is a good start. It's essential that we protect the integrity of our state court justice system and protect the people who use it."
Washington state Supreme Court Chief Justice Mary E. Fairhurst wrote in March that ICE's presence was "deeply troubling because they impede the fundamental mission of our courts, which is to ensure due process and access for everyone, regardless of their immigration status."
Sarah Mehta, a human rights research with the American Civil Liberties Union, said the new policy is helpful to understand ICE's self-imposed limitations — despite exceptions allowed — but says may have come too late with fear already spread.
"A lot of the damage has been done over the last year," she said.
ICE reaffirmed its 2014 policy is in place to avoid deportation arrests at "sensitive locations," including schools, daycares, hospitals, places of worship, funerals, weddings rallies and public demonstrations. Courthouses have never been part of that list.
Homan said metal detectors at courthouse entrances provide more safety to officers.
"We're not going to do it in the courtroom but to me it's safer," Homan said in an interview in November. "It makes sense to arrest a criminal in a criminal courthouse."
Also Wednesday, Homan spoke at a Border Security Expo in San Antonio, Texas, where he reportedly argued against legislation to help recipients in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program without other securing other border security efforts and immigration curbs. The Obama-era program has shielded immmigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children.
Trump said last year he was ending the program, claiming executive overreach by Obama, but gave Congress until March 5 to enshrine it into law. Parties have settled into a protracted tug-of-war over an immigration deal.
The urgency of the March 5 deadline was blunted by a federal judge's decision to temporarily block the end of the DACA program. As a result, U.S. immigration authorities resumed accepting requests to renew DACA permits, which give recipients permission to live and work in the country.
“If we get a clean DACA bill, shame on all of us,” Homan said, according to Fox News. "You can’t address DACA and reward people that brought children here illegally and not address underlying reasons of DACA.”
Trump has proposed a 10- to 12-year track to citizenship for around 1.8 million younger immigrants protected by DACA or eligible for its guarantees in return for $25 billion for border security, including his prized wall.
He would end a lottery used to encourage immigration from diverse countries and redistribute some of those visas to applicants with high-skilled jobs. He would also limit relatives that immigrants could sponsor for legal U.S. status to spouses and underage children. Many Democrats oppose such curbs on legal immigration.
Earlier this month, Senate Democrats looking to pressure Republicans to reach an immigration deal forced a three-day federal shutdown. While many Democrats have little appetite to repeat that strategy, party leaders have yet to indicate if they'll let future budget legislation move forward without an immigration accord.