Resilience Refugees

Cincinnati judge under fire for calling ICE on defendants

ice immigration customs enforcement agents in courtroom cincinnati ohio judge robert ruehlman aclu immigrants fear rights undocumented illegal
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Story at a glance

  • Ohio Judge Ruehlman admitted to calling ICE agents on suspected illegal immigrants in his courtroom.
  • Advocacy organizations have found that these practices lead to immigrants not reporting crimes for fear of deportation.
  • Multiple judges and lawmakers have spoken out against this practice, while ICE says it can sometimes be the only way to find illegal immigrants with criminal records.

A Cincinnati judge has come under criticism for admitting that he “regularly calls U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on defendants in his courtroom” if he suspects they are in the U.S. illegally, according to local news outlet WCPO.

The judge, Robert Ruehlman, presides over the Common Pleas Court in Hamilton County, Ohio. He recently told WCPO that he calls ICE “10 to 20 times a year” and that he thinks it’s important. 

Ruehlman describes how he comes to suspect a defendant is an illegal citizen, telling reporters“They [defendants in his courtroom] speak Spanish, they’re charged with carrying a lot of drugs, and they’re not from here. It’s pretty clear they’re illegal immigrants, you know, and if it turns out they are a citizen, then there’s no harm, no foul.”

Ruehlman insists that his tactics are not examples of racial profiling. 

The judge’s actions fuel a larger problem, critics say, in which immigrants are less likely to report a crime or participate in court proceedings for fear of deportation.

In 2018, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) surveyed various law enforcement and legal professionals and found that courthouse arrests and “fear of deportation are impacting the ability of the justice system to operate fairly and protect public safety.” 

The report specifically noted that 67 percent of police officers who responded reported this fear as impacting their ability to protect crime survivors, and 54 percent of judges felt that court cases were interrupted as a result of an immigrant crime survivor’s fear of being deported upon coming to court. 

“Courthouse arrests threaten immigrants’ constitutional rights and make our communities less safe. When members of our community are afraid to call for help, go to court, and report crimes to the police, public safety suffers,” ACLU human rights researcher and report author Sarah Mehta said in the summary. “Courts need to be accessible to all members of the public, regardless of their legal status, for the justice system to be meaningful and effective.”

Contrary to this statement, Ruehlman told WPCO that ICE has never interrupted a court proceeding in his courtroom and doesn’t anticipate this to be an obstacle for immigrant crime victims. 

Ruehlman said that immigrant fear of deportation as a deterrent from reporting crimes has “never come up” and that it is “just a red herring thrown in by the people against it who think that we should allow people that are here illegally to stay. I don’t think they should.”

ICE agents appearing in courtrooms to make arrests have been inciting backlash since 2017, and cases of ICE agents “stalking” courthouses, either in uniform or not, have been reported in California, Arizona, Texas and now in Ohio. 

ICE spokesman Khaalid Walls addressed this, saying that “Courthouses are sometimes the only location that ICE can expect a fugitive/criminal alien to appear at a scheduled time, and courthouse visitors are typically screened upon entry to search for weapons and other contraband, so the safety risks for the arresting ICE officers and for the arrestee are substantially diminished.”

Walls elaborated to say that in these situations, ICE officers attempt to take the suspect into custody “in a secure area, out of public view, but this is not always possible.”

Not every judge agrees with Ruehlman’s methods; Business Insider reported that a coalition of former judges authored a letter to then-Acting Director of ICE Ronald Vitiello citing “concern about ICE’s continued reliance on immigration enforcement activities inside courthouses.”

“ICE’s reliance on immigration arrests in courthouses instills fear in clients and deters them from seeking justice in a court building,” the letter confirmed, and the judges urged Vitiello to treat courthouses as “sensitive locations,” the same way schools, hospitals and religious houses are treated.

The letter was signed by 75 retired judges. 

Some lawmakers appear to be in concurrence with advocacy organizations and retired judges; the Congressional Hispanic Caucus tweeted its opinion that Ruehlman is “engaging in clear racial profiling” and the New York State Office of Court Administration set a rule prohibiting ICE agents from arresting suspected illegal immigrants in courthouses without warrants in April 2019.