The acting U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement director, Thomas Homan, says the agency has no plans to stop the controversial practice of arresting immigrants at courthouses.
“If there’s a public safety threat in a courthouse, we’ll continue to arrest in a courthouse,” said Homan, in response to a question from a Holocaust survivor at a Sacramento, CA, town hall this week.
Judges across the country have urged ICE to stop the controversial tactic of sweeping up immigrants up at courts because they say it could undermine public trust.
“I am deeply concerned about reports from some of our trial courts that immigration agents appear to be stalking undocumented immigrants in our courthouses to make arrests,” Chief Justice of California Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye said in an open letter sent to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Homeland Secretary Secretary John F. Kelly.
It’s unclear how often immigration officials have arrested immigrants in courthouses; an ICE spokesperson told Fusion they don't track arrests by location. But many attorneys, prosecutors, and judges say this is a practice they had never seen until President Donald Trump took office.
Virginia Kice, an ICE spokesperson, said she was personally aware of arrests conducted by immigration officials "at or near courthouses prior to this administration." She did not provide any examples.
In February, when ICE officials in Texas arrested a domestic abuse survivor at a local courthouse, El Paso County Judge Veronica Escobar said she hoped the incident “was a onetime mistake."
But the acting ICE director comments in Sacramento indicate the agency has no plans to stop courthouse arrests.
ICE guidelines recognize schools, churches, hospitals, and public demonstrations such as rallies and parades as sensitive locations they try to avoid. But ICE does not consider courthouses to be sensitive locations.
Horan said ICE agents went to courthouses looking for specific targets. “We don’t go to courthouses looking for victims, we don’t go to courthouses looking for witnesses,” Homan said at the forum in Sacramento.
But prosecutors and judges say ICE has visited courts in California, Arizona, Colorado, and Texas, where on Feb. 9, federal agents detained a transgender woman at the county courthouse after she filed a protective order against her alleged abuser.
In Texas and Denver, surveillance video of ICE agents at courthouses was broadcasted on the local news. And the practice has already had a chilling effect.
A city prosecutor in Denver said she knew of at least four domestic abuse cases that were dropped because the victims were afraid of going forward after video surfaced of ICE agents at the main local courthouse.
"Without victims willing to testify we've had to dismiss those charges and the violent offenders have seen no consequences for their violent acts," Denver City Attorney Kristin Bronson told NPR.
Kice, the ICE spokesperson, said that now that many law enforcement agencies no longer honor ICE detainers, immigration agents have to locate immigrants wherever they are and that courthouses may be safer locations.
"When ICE Fugitive Operations officers have to go out into the community to proactively locate these criminal aliens, regardless of the precautions they take, it needlessly puts our personnel and potentially innocent bystanders in harm’s way," she said. "Because courthouse visitors are typically screened upon entry to search for weapons and other contraband, the safety risks for the arresting officers and for the arrestee are substantially diminished."
At the town hall in Sacramento, Homan said officials visit courthouses after the agency has exhausted all other resources.
“The courthouse is the last place we’d go, we’d much rather go to a jail to get them,” he said.