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Defying Top Judge, County Policy, ICE Continues Arrests In Courthouses

ICE's presence in courthouses may deter witnesses, victims, and defendants from showing up to testify — making everyone less safe

Stuart Rabner
Stuart Rabner, chief justice of the NJ Supreme Court

New Jersey's top judge asked Trump administration officials last month to stop arresting immigrants inside courthouses.

Now he has their response: No way.

As recently as last week, armed Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in plainclothes arrested an undocumented immigrant at the Middlesex County courthouse, Sheriff Mildred Scott told WNYC. The man was free to go after a hearing on another matter — except right then, immigration agents stepped in and detained him on an undisclosed charge.

Middlesex County Sheriff's officers assisted the immigration agents, which is expressly against county policy. Officers are "not in any way responsible for assisting — nor will it assist ICE — in its activities that go into the courthouse," county counsel Thomas Kelso declared at a public meeting Thursday night. "The policy is very clear."

But until now, any such policy was moot. Before President Donald Trump gave ICE increased discretion to arrest undocumented immigrants, attorneys say federal agents never slipped into court to make arrests.

The most recent arrest is also a poke in the eye to Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner. Last month, Rabner responded to the first two incidents in New Jersey courts by pleading with Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly to add courthouses to a list of "sensitive locations" that ICE avoids. Rabner wrote that "serious consequences" could result if immigrants fear that coming to court might lead to deportation. Rabner argued that witnesses, victims, and defendants may not show up to testify — making everyone less safe.

Two ICE arrests prompted Rabner's initial letter. One was a March 31 incident at the Middlesex County courthouse in which an immigrant who was a victim of a crime found himself handcuffed by sheriff's officers and turned over to ICE.

Road Rage

Miguel Xicotencatl-Toxqui, an undocumented immigrant, was injured in a road-rage accident two years ago. When police came to his rental apartment to take a report, he was in the hospital getting treatment while three young children were alone in his home, which was in disrepair. Xicotencatl-Toxqui was charged with endangering the welfare of a child and released pending a court hearing on March 31, his lawyer said.

Xicotencatl-Toxqui pleaded to a lesser offense — neglect of a child, which is a noncriminal charge, according to his public defender, Lauren Bayer. He was sentenced to a year of probation, and was free to go home.

"It was at that point that the sheriff's officers indicated that there was an [ICE] warrant for him," Bayer said. "They put him in handcuffs took him out of the courtroom, and I never saw him again."

Xicotencatl-Toxqui's girlfriend then yelled at the public defender, thinking she was complicit. "She kept screaming: 'Why did you let this happen? Why didn't you tell us?'" Bayer said. "I tried to assure her that I, too, had no idea. But it doesn't matter in that moment — it’s optics. I think she felt I was somehow involved in this, and I certainly wasn't."

Bayer said ICE's new presence in the courthouse "erodes the relationship that we have with our clients." She said immigrants may fear "they can't communicate with us because we're potentially in cahoots with ICE or somehow contributing to their removal."

In Cahoots?

But was local law enforcement in cahoots with ICE? Sheriff Scott, an elected Democrat, said her officers "escorted" Xicotencatl-Toxqui to a secure area so ICE could make the arrest. She said she cannot forbid federal law enforcement agents from making an arrest inside the courthouse. "I've got to follow the guidelines," she said.

Xicotencatl-Toxqui was taken to Essex County Jail, which contracts with ICE to detain immigrants. He posted bail and is now released, pending a future court date, according to his immigration attorney, Norka Schell. ICE did not have a judicial warrant to detain him, she said, even though county policy dictates that such a warrant is required for an ICE arrest at court.

She added that Xicotencatl-Toxqui is now unlikely to call police if he's a victim of another crime.

Also this week, Schell said she was notified about an immigrant in White Plains who was charged with driving without a license. He was free to go — until ICE came into the courtroom and arrested him.

A spokesman for ICE, Luis Martinez, would not disclose the circumstances behind the New Jersey arrests. He instead issued a statement saying that ICE only makes arrests at courthouses "after investigating officers have exhausted other options." Martinez said many of those arrested have prior criminal convictions, but he provided no information about such convictions in these cases. Arrests at courthouses, he noted, are safer because visitors are screened for weapons.

Rabner, the chief justice, declined to comment about federal officials ignoring his request to cease these courthouse operations.  

A spokesman for ICE, Luis Martinez, would not disclose the circumstances behind the New Jersey arrests. He instead issued a statement saying that ICE only makes arrests at courthouses "after investigating officers have exhausted other options." Martinez said many of those arrested have prior criminal convictions, but he provided no information about such convictions in these cases. Arrests at courthouses, he noted, are safer because visitors are screened for weapons.

Rabner, the chief justice, declined to comment about federal officials ignoring his request to cease these courthouse operations.

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