The chief justice of the California Supreme Court asked federal immigration agents Thursday to stop making arrests at courthouses, saying "stalking undocumented immigrants" at the facilities thwarts people's access to justice.
Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye wrote in a letter to top federal officials that she is concerned about recent reports of immigration agents going to the courts to track down immigrants for arrest, saying the practice will affect the public's confidence in the court system.
"Courthouses should not be used as bait in the necessary enforcement of our country's immigration laws," she wrote in the letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, adding that crime and domestic violence victims and witnesses all go to the courts seeking justice and due process of the law.
The letter comes amid a series of reports of arrests at courthouses in California, Oregon and Texas as federal immigration agents have been called on to step up deportations under President Donald Trump.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement weighs many factors when deciding where to make an arrest, including whether authorities have a home or work address for the person they are seeking and what is safest for officers and community, said Virginia Kice, an agency spokeswoman.
"While ICE does arrest targets at courthouses, generally it's only after investigating officers have exhausted other options," she said in a statement.
A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment on the letter.
Last month, immigration agents in Texas arrested a woman at an El Paso courthouse while she was obtaining a protection order against an alleged abuser. The arrest sparked an outcry from victim's advocates, saying it would dissuade others from coming forward to report abuse for fear of being deported.
ICE said it also has made arrests in recent months at courthouses in Oregon and Southern California.
Many of those taken into custody at courthouses have criminal convictions but are no longer turned over to federal agents by local law enforcement as they were some years ago, Kice said.
Courthouses can be seen as a relatively safe place for federal immigration agents to make arrests because people pass through metal detectors to enter. But many advocates for immigrants and victims decry the practice, saying immigrants will be afraid to report crime or show up for hearings.
"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," Cantil-Sakauye wrote.
"They not only compromise our core value of fairness but they undermine the judiciary's ability to provide equal access to justice."
The practice also can create additional legal problems. Immigration attorney Philippe Martinet said he was recently in court in Arizona when a man identified himself as an immigration officer and arrested his client.
Because of the immigration arrest, the client missed his trial date on assault charges and the judge issued a warrant for him.
Martinet said that whatever new policies ICE is implementing, they need to be thought out thoroughly because they can derail criminal trials.
"You need to implement it in a way that doesn't throw a wrench in the system," he said.
The letter from the California chief justice was welcomed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, which several years ago raised concerns about deportation agents making arrests at courthouses in Kern County. At that time, ICE said it would refrain from making such arrests, except in "exigent circumstances."
Associated Press writer Astrid Galvan in Phoenix contributed to this report.