WASHINGTON ― Two top Trump administration officials wrote to California’s chief justice on Wednesday to tell her they won’t honor her request to stop conducting immigration enforcement within courts.
The letter, which Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly sent to California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and shared with reporters on Friday, is a response to her request this month that immigration agents cease “stalking” courthouses.
Sessions and Kelly issued a flat “no” to her request. And they objected to Cantil-Sakauye’s characterization of “stalking” and blamed California’s policies against police cooperating with Immigration and Customs Enforcement ― the so-called “sanctuary city” efforts that President Donald Trump promised to eradicate. Since police don’t always hold individuals upon ICE’s request, the officials wrote, officers and agents have to conduct arrests in public. Courthouses are a good place to do it because people inside are typically screened for weapons and contraband, they added.
The letter is emblematic of what will be an ongoing struggle as the Trump administration attempts to follow through on his vow to deport more undocumented immigrants: that many local officials think it’s detrimental to their own missions to assist him. The Trump administration, through its attempts to punish even jurisdictions with “sanctuary” policies based on court orders, has indicated its priorities on deportation are more important than those state and local officials’ own aims.
In Cantil-Sakauye’s case, she argued in a letter that allowing ICE agents to conduct enforcement at or near courthouses impeded administration of justice by discouraging victims of crime, witnesses and litigants from “seeking justice and due process of law.”
Courthouses aren’t considered “sensitive locations” like churches and schools, which immigration officers are told to avoid whenever possible, but they have in the past been subject to guidelines that encourage special precautions. After Trump became president and signed an order ending many of his predecessor’s enforcement priorities, ICE deleted a section of its “sensitive locations” website that said when possible, officers should avoid arrests in public areas of courthouses and not arrest non-targeted individuals.
Sessions and Kelly argued that immigration agents needs to go into courthouses, in part, because California and many of its counties and cities “have enacted statutes and ordinances designed to specifically prohibit or hinder ICE from enforcing immigration law” and pick people up from prisons and jails. That means they must conduct arrests in public spaces, they wrote.
“We agree with you that the enforcement of our country’s immigration laws is necessary, and that we should strive to ensure public safety and the efficient administration of justice,” Sessions and Kelly wrote. “Therefore, we would encourage you to express your concerns to the Governor of California and local officials who have enacted policies that occasionally necessitate ICE officers and agents to make arrests at courthouses and other public places.”
They also objected to Cantil-Sakauye’s statement about reports she heard “from some of our trial courts that immigration agents appear to be stalking undocumented immigrants in our courthouses to make arrests.”
Sessions and Kelly wrote that ICE officers are targeting specific individuals and that her use of the word “stalking” was unfounded.
“As the chief judicial officer for the State of California, your characterization of federal law enforcement officers is particularly troubling,” they wrote. “As you are aware, stalking has a specific legal meaning in American law, which describes criminal activity involving repetitive following or harassment of the victim with the intent to produce fear of harm.”
Conducting immigration enforcement at courthouses is, as they wrote, legal, and arrests are part of ICE’s mission. Producing fear, though, is exactly what Cantil-Sakauye and others have said would happen if ICE carried out arrests at or near courthouses.
“[E]nforcement policies that include stalking courthouses and arresting undocumented immigrants, the vast majority of whom pose no risk to public safety, are neither safe nor fair,” Cantil-Sakauye wrote in her letter this month. “They not only compromise our core value of fairness but they undermine the judiciary’s ability to provide equal access to justice.”
Cantil-Sakauye said in a statement Friday that she appreciates “the prompt letter and their admission that they are in state courthouses making federal arrests.”
“However, making arrests at courthouses, in my view, undermines public safety because victims and witnesses will fear coming to courthouses to help enforce the law,” she said. “I am disappointed that despite local and state public safety issues at stake, courthouses are not on ICE’s ‘sensitive areas’ list that includes schools, churches, and hospitals.”
You can read the letter from Sessions and Kelly in full below:
This article has been updated with a statement from Cantil-Sakauye in response to the letter from Sessions and Kelly.