US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) formalized a policy last month that allows ICE officers to make arrests in state, local, and federal courthouses, despite complaints from judges and immigration advocacy groups that this tactic creates fear among victims of crime, witnesses, and family members. The ICE memo, signed off by Acting ICE Director Thomas D. Homan, says courthouse enforcement only targets immigrants with criminal convictions, gang members, threats to national or public safety, those who have been ordered removed but did not leave the US, and those who have re-entered illegally after being removed.
Defending their practice of courthouse arrests, the memo says that they “are often necessitated by the unwillingness of jurisdictions to cooperate with ICE in the transfer of custody of aliens from their prisons and jails.” Courthouse arrests, the memo points out, are often safer for all involved since individuals have already passed through security. The memo also says that friends and family members accompanying the targeted individual will not be subject to enforcement actions except in special circumstances and that ICE will “generally avoid” enforcement actions in courthouses or areas dedicated to non-criminal proceedings, including family court and small claims court.
In response to the memo, California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye, who had previously asked ICE to stay out of her courts, says: “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.” Sarah Mehta, a human rights researcher with the American Civil Liberties Union, says that while the new policy may be helpful, the fear in immigrant communities is already widespread. “A lot of the damage has been done over the last year,” she says.
ICE has dramatically increased arrests by forty percent under the Trump administration, and is not only targeting courthouses but is also making arrests at US Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) offices. Fabiano de Oliveira, an undocumented Brazilian immigrant who entered the US in 2005, was arrested last month in front of his wife shortly after a meeting with USCIS to verify their marriage was valid, despite his lack of a criminal record. Oliveira’s attorney, Jeffrey Rubin, says that he has not seen this aggressive tactic in over a decade. In a case last year, Leandro Arriaga, who had come to the US from the Dominican Republic in 2000, was arrested at an immigration office with his US citizen wife and three-month-old daughter, and there are other reported instances.
Ira Mehlman, media director for the immigration restrictionist group the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), feels that the agency is only doing what it is ultimately supposed to do. “Marriage fraud has been a persistent problem,” Mehlman tells the Boston Herald. “There’s no question ICE is stepping up enforcement—which was nil under President Obama.” Immigration attorney Zoila Gomez, who has also had clients who were spouses of American citizens arrested at USCIS offices, says that her clients and others in their situation are only trying to follow the law and attempting to obtain legal status. She says: “By ICE arresting anybody who applies for this type of benefit, what they’re saying is, ‘Don’t do it. Because if you do apply, we’re going to arrest you—we’re going to deport you.’”