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ICE Agents at Courthouses Trample on Public Safety

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Judges, Law Enforcement Call Out Sessions and Kelly for Efforts to Trample on Public Safety

A new battle between the Trump Administration and states and localities has broken out over whether immigration enforcement should take place at courthouses. A growing number of state and local leaders from law enforcement and the judiciary are expressing opposition to the notion, arguing that the presence of immigration enforcement agents at courthouses discourages immigrants from serving as witnesses and undermines prosecutions.  Nevertheless, the Trump Administration is proceeding full steam ahead — and blaming these local states and communities for having the audacity to decide how best to police and protect their own communities.

In mid-March, California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye wrote a letter to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and DHS Secretary General John Kelly expressing concern over ICE agents being seen at courthouses, stating:

Courthouses should not be used as bait in the necessary enforcement of our country’s immigration laws. 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.

Also in March, the chief justice of the Washington state Supreme Court sent a letter to Secretary Kelly, urging DHS to keep immigration enforcement agents away from courthouses. As AP recapped:

Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst said the agents’ presence could scare people away from courthouses, including domestic violence victims and witnesses in criminal trials.

In response to these concerns, AG Sessions and Secretary Kelly issued their own letter last week. After falsely asserting that so-called “sanctuary” policies “threaten public safety, rather than enhance it” (the exact opposite of findings that “sanctuary cities” are safer), Sessions and Kelly letter noted of ICE agents’ presence at a courthouse:

We agree with you that the enforcement of our country’s immigration laws is necessary, and that we should strive to ensure public safety and the efficient administration of justice. Therefore, 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…While these law enforcement personnel will remain mindful of concerns by the public and governmental stakeholders regarding enforcement activities, they will continue to take prudent and reasonable actions within their lawful authority to achieve that mission.

Yet there is nothing “prudent” or “reasonable” about immigration enforcement agents’ presence at courthouses. As San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon recently said, ICE’s presence in courthouses is “very shortsighted … the chilling impact that has on an entire community is devastating.”

D.A. Gascon’s fears are unfortunately being borne out across the country. For example, as the Los Angeles Times described, Denver City Attorney Kristi Bronson recently:

told several media outlets that she had to dismiss prosecutions against four separate domestic violence suspects because the complaining witnesses, all of whom are in the country illegally, were afraid ICE might either learn their location through a court docket or send agents to the courthouse when they appeared to testify. Bronson’s comments came weeks after a video surfaced showing ICE agents waiting to arrest someone outside a Denver courtroom. (For more, read this Slate interview with Bronson, titled “Bad for Undocumented Immigrants, a Gift to Domestic Abusers”).

As Elise Foley of Huffington Post recapped of the larger stakes:

The letter is emblematic of what will be an ongoing struggle as the Trump administration attempts to follow through on his vow to deport more undocumented immigrants: that many local officials think it’s detrimental to their own missions to assist him. The Trump administration, through its attempts to punish even jurisdictions with ‘sanctuary’ policies based on court orders, has indicated its priorities on deportation are more important than those state and local officials’ own aims.

According to Frank Sharry, America’s Voice Education Fund:

The Trump Administration is placing its deportation strategy above basic common sense, the principles of federalism, and public safety considerations. Domestic violence victims need protection, not deportation. Witnesses should be able to come forward without fear of being ripped away from home, family and work. The federal government should respect that local judicial and law enforcement officials should be the primary players in deciding law enforcement strategy. We are especially concerned that DHS Secretary Kelly is standing with rather than up to the Trump Administration’s mass deportation blueprint. If he doesn’t serve as the adult in the room, he’ll be known as the enabler of Sessions.