Clad in fluorescent yellow vests, armed with pamphlets listing immigrants' rights, and accompanied by a Golden Retriever named Emma, a small group of activists are patrolling the outside of a municipal court in Central New Jersey looking out for immigration agents.
A new Trump administration directive allows Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers to enter courthouses to arrest immigrants who are there for unrelated reasons. As these operations have ramped up, lawyers and local officials have expressed outrage. The chief justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court even wrote a letter of complaint to the Justice Department, to no avail.
So for the last few weeks a group of volunteers have taken action themselves.
Each day that court is in session, they patrol the courthouse in North Brunswick, where activists say three immigrants without documentation were recently detained by ICE after showing up to court to pay fines for driving-related infractions. The activists are led by Seth Kaper-Dale, a pastor and former gubernatorial candidate who has shielded immigrants from deportation by taking them into sanctuary at his church.
"When someone comes in to pay their fine for a minor driving thing, driving without a license or whatever, immigration has picked them up and put them in detention and we think that's wrong," Kaper-Dale told a passerby who asked what they were doing. "If the court starts to be a place where people fear, they won't pay their fines and they'll stay away from law-and-order, and that's not a good thing for society."
The police department's headquarters sits next to the courthouse, and Kaper-Dale is concerned that immigrants will be reluctant to go there to report crimes if ICE is known to circulate in the area.
So each day that court is in session, volunteers patrol. If they see an SUV with possible ICE officers — which has yet to happen while they're there — they plan to capture footage on their phones of any arrests. They'll try to get the immigrant's name, so they can track down relatives and a lawyer. And they'll warn any immigrants inside the court that they should avoid the parking lot until ICE leaves.
A hotline for a group that Kaper-Dale set up to respond to ICE arrests is listed on the volunteers' vests. And then there's the Golden Retriever, Emma, whom Kaper-Dale joked is an "ICE-sniffing dog."
Emma's owner, Annette Mulholland, said more people want to pet her dog than talk to her about undocumented immigrants. But if they ask, she explains that "we're observers to see that human rights are met if immigration does come here."
Mulholland said she decided to get involved after growing "quite depressed" when President Trump was elected. "I wanted to be a little more active than I had been in the past, and I thought I'd start in the areas where our current government is demonizing entire groups of people," she said.
A spokesman for ICE, Emilio Dabul, had no comment about the volunteer patrols, but said that if anyone interferes with the law, they’ll be "dealt with accordingly, pursuant to applicable law."