Connecticut’s top judge penned a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly last month asking them to stop making immigration arrests at courthouses.
The May 15 letter from Chase Rogers, chief justice of the Connecticut Supreme Court, marks the latest instance of a high-ranking judge telling federal immigration authorities that their intrusion into courthouses undermines the justice system. The Connecticut Immigrant Rights Alliance, a group that has lobbied to keep the state from cooperating with federal deportation efforts, sent the letter to HuffPost on Wednesday.
Rogers asked Immigration and Customs Enforcement to include courthouses as one of the “sensitive locations” ― like churches, funerals or public demonstrations ― that ICE generally avoids when detaining immigrants.
“I am fully cognizant of the authority that ICE officers have to detain someone, and we are in full compliance with federal law regarding detainer requests for the surrender of defendants held in custody,” the letter reads. “However, it is of great concern when they take custody of individuals in the public areas of our courthouses.”
“I believe that having ICE officers detain individuals in public areas of our courthouses may cause litigants, witnesses and interested parties to view our courthouses as places to avoid, rather than as institutions of fair and impartial justice,” the letter adds.
“[Detaining] individuals in public areas of our courthouses may cause litigants, witnesses and interested parties to view our courthouses as places to avoid.”
For years, ICE has avoided making arrests at locations of religious significance or where people have a right to go regardless of their immigration status, like public schools and hospitals. While ICE has not officially classified courthouses as a sensitive location in the past, under the Obama administration, the agency specified that agents should only make arrests at courthouses in “priority cases” and that they should try to take people into custody outside public areas.
Shortly after President Donald Trump took office, however, ICE scrubbed the section covering courthouses from the sensitive locations policy posted on its website.
ICE has carried out several high-profile arrests inside courthouses since Trump took office, raising concerns from some immigrant rights groups and local officials who argue, like Rogers, that those actions will make undocumented immigrants fearful of going to court.
Ana Maria Rivera-Forastieri, a member of the Connecticut Immigrant Rights Alliance, described courthouse arrests as “disruptive to our judicial system.” Immigrants have increasingly called CIRA to report courthouse arrests since Trump took office, she said.
“The public isn’t very eager to participate in our judicial system if they feel like when they go, they’re going to be apprehended by immigration officers,” Rivera-Forastieri told HuffPost. “Victims of domestic violence and folks that are hoping to serve as witnesses are not showing up to court.”
The growing number of courthouse arrests has led advocates and some public officials to accuse the Trump administration of violating the spirit of the sensitive locations policy. In one particularly controversial case, immigration officers arrested a transgender woman seeking a protective order from an alleged abuser at a family courthouse in El Paso, Texas, in February.
“Victims of domestic violence and folks that are hoping to serve as witnesses are not showing up to court.”
Despite the concerns raised by judges, immigrant rights groups and some elected officials, ICE has increasingly looked to courthouses as a convenient place to arrest undocumented immigrants. Kelly and Sessions defended the practice in March in a joint letter saying that courthouse arrests allowed ICE to circumvent so-called “sanctuary” policies in which local jurisdictions limit cooperation with federal immigration authorities.
“Some jurisdictions, including the State of California and many of its largest counties and cities, have enacted statutes and ordinances designed to specifically prohibit or hinder ICE from enforcing immigration law by prohibiting communication with ICE, and denying requests ICE officers and agents to enter prisons and jails to make arrests,” Sessions and Kelly wrote. “As a result, ICE officers and agents are required to locate and arrests these aliens in public places, rather than in secure jail facilities.”
The letter argued that courthouses are safe places to make arrests since most people are screened before entering.
Connecticut passed a statewide law, called the TRUST Act, in 2013 that instructs local law enforcement to disregard ICE’s requests to hold immigrants unless they are accompanied by a judicial warrant. Local police may hold immigrants for ICE without a warrant if they have been deported before, if they have felony convictions or if their names appear on the terrorist watch list, according to the Connecticut Post.
CIRA argued that Connecticut legislators should expand the state’s TRUST Act in response to the Trump administration’s more aggressive deportation efforts.
Such changes will have to wait until next year. Connecticut lawmakers declined to take up a bill to expand the state’s TRUST Act before the legislative session ended on Wednesday.
“The legislature’s failure to act represents a lack of political will,” Rivera-Forastieri said in a statement. “As Trump wages war on immigrants around the country, not a single bill that addresses attacks against immigrants in Connecticut was raised by the committee.”