Homeland Security courthouse dragnet endangers immigrant families
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“Do you have kids? Then you know you’d do anything for them, right?” Sergio Perez said to me over the phone on Thursday from the LaSalle Detention Center in Louisiana, where he is awaiting deportation to Mexico. 

Perez has three US citizen children -- ages 16, 15, and 10.  They live with their mother in southwest Detroit, a short drive from Perez’s house in Allen Park. “I pay the rent for their mom’s house,” Perez said. “I told them, whatever you need, I’m going to be here for you.” 


Perez said his desire to protect his children caused him to sue his estranged wife for joint custody after learning that her live-in boyfriend had threatened them. Perez’s wife had taken out a personal protective order against the boyfriend in 2015 after he allegedly assaulted her, but they continued living together with the children, he told me.


I only have his side of the story and his lawyer’s, but a court date to determine whether Perez would share custody had been set for March 29.

Perez came to the US in 1997. Because he has never had legal immigration status, he thought that suing for joint custody of the children was a risk. He said he had never been convicted of a crime in the US though he had been previously deported, in 2012. Perez’s oldest daughter asked him not to go to court on the 29th, fearing he would be arrested and deported. 

“I thought there was a risk but I couldn’t let my kids live in that kind of situation,” Perez told me.

On the morning of the hearing, Perez went to the Oakland County, Michigan court, said his lawyer, Bethany McAllister. But immigration authorities arrested him inside the courthouse as he met with the family court referee. He left in handcuffs with the immigration agents. No hearing was held to determine if Perez’s children are safe or if Perez’s deportation might adversely affect them.

The issue of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents inside courthouses gained national attention after the chief justice of the California Supreme Court wrote a strongly worded letter to Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsRoy Moore sues Alabama over COVID-19 restrictions GOP set to release controversial Biden report Trump's policies on refugees are as simple as ABCs MORE and Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly last month asking them to stop immigration enforcement actions at courthouses. The chief justice said that the arrests discourage people from resolving conflict in the courts or seeking the protection of the law.

Sessions and Kelly responded to the chief justice, saying that the Trump administration does not plan to abandon the practice, which was also used under the Obama administration. Sessions and Kelly claimed that it’s safer for ICE to operate in courthouses because everyone has to have security screening to enter the buildings.

Democrats in the House and the Senate have introduced bills that would put courthouses off limits to ICE. Reports of recent Trump administration courthouse arrests include a woman seeking protection against domestic violence in Texas, a 20-year resident with a marijuana conviction in Maine, a dairy worker appearing about a DUI Vermont, and a New Yorker facing misdemeanor assault charges.

A staff attorney at the Immigrant Defense Project told the Daily Beast that her group counted 19 total arrests or attempted arrests in courthouses by ICE agents in 2015 and 2016 combined. In February and March of this year alone they have reports of 13 ICE arrests or attempts.

Perez expects to be deported within the next couple of days. His concern remains the safety of his children. “I’m not afraid to go to Mexico,” he said. “But I am afraid to leave my children living like they are.” 

Clara Long is a US immigration researcher at Human Rights Watch. Her works has appeared in The Guardian.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.