Public safety requires courthouses to be safe spaces for undocumented immigrants

Across the country Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has begun showing up at courthouses to follow and arrest undocumented immigrants. This has had a chilling effect on other undocumented immigrants, scaring crime victims, witnesses, criminal defendants and others from showing up to court. While perhaps convenient for ICE, it has created a barrier to justice and has made our communities less safe.

Instead, President Trump should help protect American communities by doing everything possible to encourage victims and witnesses of crime to report criminal activity to the police and to help in the prosecution of crime.

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It doesn’t matter whether those victims or witnesses are U.S. citizens, lawful immigrants, or undocumented immigrants. We want them to report and help law enforcement. Threatening victims and witnesses with deportation if they report crime is counterproductive. It scares away the very people that our hardworking police and prosecutors need to talk to.

 

Unlike President Obama who, as a general rule, did not carry out immigration enforcement activities at courthouses — despite courthouses never being included in ICE’s Sensitive Locations Policy which includes schools, churches, and hospitals — President Trump has said there are no more safe spaces for undocumented immigrants. In the last several weeks ICE enforcement actions have taken place at courthouses in Texas, California, Arizona, Colorado, Massachusetts, Maryland and Oregon.

While perhaps President Trump’s approach is grounded in a belief that he is being tough on enforcing the law, specifically immigration law, in reality he is making it harder to enforce every other type of law, including criminal law, at the local, state, and federal levels.

As California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye stated in a letter to ICE, “making arrests at courthouses, in my view, undermines public safety because victims and witnesses will fear coming to courthouses to help enforce the law.”

This is already happening. For example, after ICE arrested one undocumented victim at an El Paso, Texas court who was there seeking a protective order several other crime victims revoked their requests to seek protective orders.

Two of them specifically cited the ICE arrest. In another example, Denver, Colorado City Attorney Bronson had to dismiss prosecutions against four domestic violence suspects because the witnesses were afraid ICE might learn their location from the court’s docket and/or send agents to the courthouse when they appeared to testify.

These actions have a chilling effect on the community, the opposite of what we need. All of us have an interest in making sure that our communities are safe and scaring victims away from reporting and cooperating with law enforcement only makes all of us less safe. “The idea that entering courthouses to make immigration related arrests somehow enhances public safety is disturbingly backwards,” San Francisco District Attorney Gascon said in a statement. I couldn’t agree more.

Making courthouses safe spaces is not providing sanctuary to undocumented immigrants. They could be detained by ICE somewhere else. What it does is allow our local police and prosecutors to do their jobs. The last thing we need is the federal government poking its nose into state and local prosecutions and preventing them from moving forward.

In a letter to Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye ICE attempted to argue that it needs to arrest people at courthouses because local officials won’t hold undocumented immigrants past their release date. There are several problems with this logic. Arresting people before they’ve been tried – as has happened in several of the recent cases – prevents the judicial system from holding criminals accountable, denies them a chance at redemption, and takes away their right to due process.

Bexar County Court No. 5 Judge Longoria said, “we want to encourage people to come in, not discourage them.” The judge is exactly right — we want people who may have committed a crime to show up to court and be tried. If they are guilty the criminal justice system should have a chance to met out the proper punishment. This also serves as a deterrent not only to them but to others in the community who might be tempted to engage in criminal activity.

For example, during the week of March 6th ICE arrested a man in San Antonio, Texas who was in court to attend a pretrial conference for a DWI charge, carting him away without giving him a chance to argue his innocence.

One of the most problematic aspects of President Trump’s Executive Order is that it directs ICE to focus not only on those who are convicted of a crime but also on those who are charged with a crime or even suspected of committing a crime.

Not only can this lead to racial profiling, it undermines key American values of democratic justice. As Judge Longoria stated, “[they are] innocent until proven guilty.” Everyone has the right to a fair hearing. It is important for the federal government to allow the criminal justice system to do its job.

Additionally, other people who have never been charged with or convicted of a crime, but are present at court, may be swept up in this policy, such as crime victims, witnesses, and those paying traffic tickets or getting marriage licenses.

On April 4th, DHS spokesman David Lapan said that ICE would not exclude victims and witnesses from arrests at courthouses and would even target them in some cases. This may be illegal under the Violence Against Women Act when the victim is appearing in court in connection with a domestic violence, sexual assault, trafficking or stalking case.

Scaring people from going to court is stupid; it only serves to prevent prosecutors and judges from doing their jobs punishing and preventing crime in our communities.

Furthermore, it is cruel. I’ve represented around 50 crime victims over the last two years and it is abundantly clear that my clients have lived through horrific abuse, shown immense courage in coming forward about what they suffered, and could use a little assistance from the community in piecing their lives back together. Arresting them when they seek protection is not the answer.

President Trump should direct ICE to focus its limited resources elsewhere. Scaring undocumented immigrants is counterproductive to improving public safety. Without the presence of crime victims and witnesses, dangerous suspects might go free and other criminals will know that they can commit crimes with impunity. This makes all of us less safe.

 is an immigration attorney at the Texas non-profit RAICES, where she represents crime victims in VAWA, U-visa, and T-visa cases. She has published previously in the Oxford Monitor about Forced Migration, the Human Rights Brief, the International Lawyer, and Peace Review.


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