AP

In response to reports that officers from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency have been ramping up their practice of arresting undocumented immigrants in or near courthouses in California, the state's highest judicial officer has penned a scathing letter telling them to stop.

"I am deeply concerned about reports from some of our trial courts that immigration agents appear to be stalking undocumented immigrants in our courthouses to make arrests," Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye wrote in her letter, which was addressed to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Department of Homeland Security chief John Kelly.

Earlier this week, the Los Angeles Times reported that ICE agents, emboldened by President Donald Trump's ongoing immigration crackdown, have waged an aggressive effort to target undocumented immigrants appearing in court. One defense attorney told the paper that in 15 years of practicing law, he'd never seen immigration arrests take place at courthouses until now.

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"Our courthouses serve as a vital forum for ensuring access to justice and protecting public safety," Justice Cantil-Sakauye wrote. "Courthouses should not be used as bait in the necessary enforcement of our country’s immigration laws."

Explaining that most residents interface with their local and state governments far more than at the federal level, Justice Cantil-Sakauye worried about the cumulative negative effect of ICE's courthouse crackdown, which could "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."

Cantil-Sakauye, the state's first Asian-Filipina American chief justice, was appointed by Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. In early February, she responded to the president's executive orders on immigration by pushing ahead with an initiative to provide immigrants in the court system new and updated resources.

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"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," she wrote. "They not only compromise our core value of fairness but they undermine the judiciary’s ability to provide equal access to justice."

Her full letter is as follows:

Dear Attorney General Sessions and Secretary Kelly:

As Chief Justice of California responsible for the safe and fair delivery of justice in our state, I am deeply concerned about reports from some of our trial courts that immigration agents appear to be stalking undocumented immigrants in our courthouses to make arrests.

Our courthouses serve as a vital forum for ensuring access to justice and protecting public safety. Courthouses should not be used as bait in the necessary enforcement of our country’s immigration laws.

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. 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. As finders of fact, trial courts strive to mitigate fear to ensure fairness and protect legal rights. Our work is critical for ensuring public safety and the efficient administration of justice.

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.

Each layer of government – federal, state, and local – provides a portion of the fabric of our society that preserves law and order and protects the rights and freedoms of the people. The separation of powers and checks and balances at the various levels and branches of government ensure the harmonious existence of the rule of law.

The federal and state governments share power in countless ways, and our roles and responsibilities are balanced for the public good. As officers of the court, we judges uphold the constitutions of both the United States and California, and the executive branch does the same by ensuring that our laws are fairly and safely enforced. But 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. They not only compromise our core value of fairness but they undermine the judiciary’s ability to provide equal access to justice. I respectfully request that you refrain from this sort of enforcement in California's courthouses.

—Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye

On Thursday afternoon, an ICE Spokesperson, citing the Department of Homeland Security, sent the following statement:

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The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) does not comment on correspondence directed to the Secretary, however DHS will respond to the letter as appropriate.

That said, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deportation officers carry out enforcement actions every day in locations around the country as part of the agency’s mission to protect public safety, border security, and the integrity of the nation’s immigration system. The determinations about where and how ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) personnel carry out arrests are made 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.

§ While ICE does arrest targets at courthouses, generally it’s only after investigating officers have exhausted other options.

§ It’s important to note that many of the arrest targets ICE has sought out at or near courthouses are foreign nationals who have prior criminal convictions in the U.S. 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.

§ When criminal custody transfers occur inside the secure confines of a jail or prison, it’s far safer for everyone involved, including our officers and the person who’s being arrested.

§ 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. When ICE Fugitive Operations officers have to go out into the community to proactively locate these criminal aliens, regardless of the precautions they take, it needlessly puts our personnel and potentially innocent bystanders in harm’s way.

§ Moreover, tracking down our priority fugitives is highly resource intensive. It’s not uncommon for our criminal alien targets to utilize multiple aliases and provide authorities with false addresses. Many do not have a stable place of employment

§ Absent a viable address for a residence or place of employment, a courthouse may afford the most likely opportunity to locate a target and take him or her into custody.

§ Additionally, 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.

§ In such instances where deportation officers seek to conduct an arrest at a courthouse, every effort is made to take the person into custody in a secure area, out of public view, but this is not always possible.