Criticism follows rise in courthouse immigration arrests

LOS ANGELES -- In the past few weeks, attorneys and prosecutors in California, Arizona, Texas and Colorado have all reported teams of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents -- some in uniform, some not -- sweeping into courtrooms or lurking outside court complexes, waiting to arrest people who are in the country illegally.

On Thursday, the California chief justice asked President Donald Trump's administration to stop immigration agents from "stalking" the state's courthouses to make arrests.

"Courthouses should not be used as bait in the necessary enforcement of our country's immigration laws," Tani Cantil-Sakauye wrote in a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly. "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."

Immigration officials have defended the tactic, saying they make arrests in courthouses only when all other options have been exhausted. But activists, attorneys and prosecutors fear the agency's increased presence in courthouses could deter other illegal aliens from appearing in court to testify as witnesses or answer warrants, which ultimately could endanger prosecutions.

[U.S. immigration: Data visualization of selectedimmigration statistics, U.S. border map]

San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon called Immigration and Customs Enforcement's forays into courthouses "very shortsighted" because some immigrants here illegally will simply avoid court for fear of being arrested.

"The chilling impact that has on an entire community is devastating," he said.

The agency directs its agents to avoid making arrests in "sensitive locations," including schools, places of worship and hospitals, whenever possible, said Virginia Kice, an agency spokesman.

That policy does not cover courthouses, Kice said, although agents normally will try to detain people at other locations before entering a courtroom. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's recent action in courthouses has been, in part, driven by an increase in the number of local law enforcement agencies that refuse to comply with requests to detain suspects in county jails, she said.

There are tactical advantages for agents with courthouse arrests, Kice said. Suspects have to pass through metal detectors before entering courthouses, meaning they are unlikely to be armed.

Although some of the courthouse arrests were of people with violent pasts, others have focused on different segments of the population. On Feb. 9, Irvin Gonzalez Torres -- a woman who had accused her husband of abuse -- was arrested while seeking a restraining order in an El Paso, Texas, courthouse, said Lucila Flores Camarena, an assistant county attorney in El Paso who oversees the agency's protective order unit.

Flores Camarena said she was concerned that the presence of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in courthouses might cause some women to stay with their abusers, rather than risk going to court to seek a protective order for fear of deportation. In the weeks after Torres' arrest, several other women revoked their requests to seek protective orders. Two specifically cited Torres' arrest, she said.

"It's a really horrific position to find yourself in," Flores Camarena said. "I can't feel safe in seeking help from the justice system because I now have this very real threat that I might be deported."

A Section on 03/20/2017

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