Immigrant advocates applauded California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye's request that federal agents stop "stalking courthouses" to make arrests of immigrants in the country illegally.
The chief justice wrote to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly Thursday after receiving reports that immigration agents have been waiting in and around California trial courts to apprehend those who have been ordered deported.
"Courthouses should not be used as bait in the necessary enforcement of our country’s immigration laws,” Cantil-Sakauye wrote in her letter. "I respectfully request that you refrain from this sort of enforcement in California's courthouses."
Lindsay Toczylowski, an immigrant advocate in Los Angeles, said she knew of one confirmed case of ICE agents making a courthouse arrest. Last month, a man living in the country illegally was arrested as he walked out of a Pasadena courtroom.
But Toczylowski, who heads the Immigrant Defenders Law Center, said immigrants are worried that more such arrests will come under the Trump administration's stepped up immigration enforcement, and that some may avoid the court and local public safety agencies.
"If people are afraid to go to our local courthouses, that means that they won’t be testifying in cases where they have witnessed a crime, that means they won’t be reporting people for domestic violence or other crimes," Toczylowski said.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement acknowledged in a statement Thursday that the agency does make arrests at or near courthouses but said it does so generally as a last resort.
ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice said the courthouse is sometimes the only place to track down "priority fugitives" who have false addresses or aliases. Kice could not provide the numbers of unauthorized immigrants arrested at courthouses because she said the agency does not track its apprehensions by location, but she said the cases have been on the rise.
She said this because "a growing number of criminal aliens in California are being released onto the street rather than being remanded to ICE" and the agency is finding it harder to find its targets when some local law enforcement agencies are no longer honoring ICE requests to detain suspects.
So-called sanctuary jurisdictions have adopted policies limiting cooperation with federal immigration enforcement officials in detaining unauthorized immigrants. Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck and other officials have said immigration enforcement is not the job of local police, who they say can lose the trust of the community if they had to enforce immigration laws.
Kice argued it is safer for everybody involved when ICE targets are arrested at courthouses because all visitors to the buildings are screened for weapons.
But other law enforcement officials disagree with ICE's tactics. In Los Angeles, City Attorney Mike Feuer issued a statement supporting the chief justice's request that agents stop arresting people in courthouses. He countered that instead of increasing safety, ICE was putting the public in harm's way by employing that practice."It also risks confrontations that could jeopardize members of the public at courthouses throughout our state," Feuer said.
Toczylowski said the fear in the immigrant community about courthouse arrests may be exacerbated by the fact that ICE agents sometimes refer to themselves as police. That could lead to confusion over what kind of law enforcement officers they're seeing in courtrooms, she said.
City officials in Los Angeles have asked ICE agents to stop identifying themselves as police, but immigration agents say they are allowed to call themselves that when enforcing the law.
Kice said the Department of Homeland Security would respond to the chief justice's letter "as appropriate" but "we’re not going to speculate about the nature of that response."