ICE Arrests in NJ Courthouses Surging, Lawyers Say

Matt Katz, WNYC | December 12, 2017 | Immigration
Some undocumented immigrants are afraid to go to court, even to pursue orders of protection against abusive spouses, worried that ICE agents will be waiting for them there

Credit: Natalie Fertig
A survey of attorneys and immigrant advocacy groups indicates that arrests of undocumented immigrants inside New Jersey courthouses have spiked since President Trump took office. 

The survey, released by the immigration nonprofit Make The Road New Jersey, showed that most legal and social service providers who work with immigrants reported having clients who were scared to attend criminal court due to fear of immigration agents stalking the courthouses — even going so far as to avoid pursuing orders of protection against abusive partners. The report also showed that 56 percent had clients who were afraid to be witnesses in criminal cases.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) claims its agents go to courthouses only after options are exhausted. In a statement a spokesperson said since courthouse visitors are screened for weapons, arrests inside such facilities are safer for everyone. The spokesperson added that the rise of so-called sanctuary cities — where undocumented immigrants charged with low-level crimes are not transferred to immigration authorities — necessitates taking action in courthouses to enforce immigration law.

Last year, New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security, saying that courthouses should be considered “sensitive locations,” since immigration agents’ presence in courthouses means criminal witnesses, victims, and defendants may not show up to testify in cases.

But ICE does not consider courthouses sensitive locations, even as their activity there has drawn criticism in New York and around the country.

Court dockets include names of people charged with crimes, testifying in trials, or petitioning the court in civil matters. Those names can readily be checked with ICE databases. Then, when immigrants show up to court and identify themselves to judges, an ICE agent in the courtroom can easily identify them.

Attorney Lauren Herman with Make The Road New Jersey said plainclothes agents are arresting undocumented people who are in court for all sorts of reasons. She relayed the story of an undocumented married couple with two American citizen children. Though charges were ultimately dropped, both were arrested in a domestic violence incident. On their walk home from one of several court appearances, immigration agents arrested them. The husband is now back in his native Mexico.

Stories like these have made immigrants less likely to show up at court, Herman said. 

“We absolutely see people who are just too afraid; they don’t think they’re going to get the protection they need, and they think they’re going to be arrested and detained and deported,” she said. “So whether they need to file a wage-theft complaint, whether they’re getting a restraining order for domestic violence, if they’re trying to collect child support, or if they’re going to municipal court for traffic tickets, people call us to say, ‘Is it safe for me to go to court? I’m really terrified.'”

Attorney Michael Noriega said he was in court to represent a client charged with driving under the influence when he noticed a man in the courtroom with a plaid shirt “and a suspicious looking bulge toward the back of his hip.” After another hearing at a later date, that same man popped out of an SUV outside the courthouse as he and his client were leaving. His client — who had just pleaded guilty to the DUI — was detained. The DUI had jeopardized his status as a recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals immigration program. He has since been released.

Noriega said this exemplifies how the Trump administration is wasting resources and terrorizing communities as it goes after the kinds of immigrants who had never before been in the cross-hairs. “It’s who they’re targeting in the courthouse — it seems to me the targets are the sort of low-hanging fruit,” Noriega said.

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