Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has been stepping up its enforcement operations, this time in and around courthouses. There have been reports of ICE officers increasingly showing up in courthouses across the country to arrest unsuspecting immigrants. This is a misguided policy…and a dangerous one, for all of us.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), supported by Attorney General Sessions, recently defended ICE’s actions, stating that arresting a person in a courthouse better ensures public safety since the person would have already been screened by the courthouse and are less likely to have access to a weapon, resist arrest or flee. Ironically though, this tactic will only backfire. ICE agents appearing at courthouses will have a chilling effect on the administration of the criminal justice process and will actually make us all less safe.
Imagine for a moment that the individuals targeted for ICE enforcement action are not unauthorized immigrants. When individuals who are victims of criminal behavior or witnesses to criminal activity are inhibited from coming forward and cooperating in the criminal justice process, our public safety as a whole is threatened. When someone fails to report a crime or fails to cooperate with local law enforcement in the investigation of a crime, the perpetrator remains at large, free to commit a crime against someone else. Similarly, when a person who is a witness to a crime fails to appear in court to testify or otherwise cooperate in the prosecution of a crime, the court may not have enough evidence to move forward with a case and the result is the same—the perpetrator is effectively allowed to go back into our communities to commit crimes again, against someone else. These scenarios are the same regardless of the immigration status of the crime victim or witness.
Congress has long recognized that immigrants are particularly vulnerable to crimes, including sexual assault, domestic violence and human trafficking, due to a variety of factors such as language barriers, lack of knowledge of U.S. laws, and cultural differences. Yet, they are also less likely to come forward to report a crime or assist in any criminal investigation or prosecution because they are afraid they will be questioned about their immigration status or reported to ICE. That is why in 2000, Congress, with bipartisan support, passed a law that would grant certain immigrant crime victims protection under the immigration laws. This law, known as the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Prevention Act of 2000 (VTVPA), was enacted to encourage immigrant crime victims to cooperate with law enforcement without fear of reprisal.
DHS has stated that the immigrant crime victims and witnesses it arrests in courthouses may still apply for protections under the VTVPA. However, ICE agents that appear in court looking for unauthorized immigrants undermine the purpose of the law.
Courthouses must be considered a “safe” place where anyone seeking access to justice may come forward without fear. And there is a solution. Congress should pass the Protecting Sensitive Locations Act, introduced by Reps. Adriano Espaillat (NY-13), Suzanne Bonamici (OR-01), José E. Serrano (NY-15), and Don Beyer (VA-08) last month, which would prohibit ICE from conducting enforcement actions in certain locations, including courthouses. As an alternative, ICE could amend its own guidance and unequivocally add “courthouses” to the list of “sensitive locations” (currently, only schools, hospitals and places of worship are on the list). Because when a large segment of our community does not feel safe enough to report crimes or assist in the criminal justice system, we should all be afraid.
By Evangeline Chan, Member, AILA Media Advocacy Committee