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Philly sheriff tells feds: ICE agents must now identify themselves to deputies in city courtrooms

There was no immediate word on whether the Philadelphia ICE office, among the most aggressive in the nation, would comply with the sheriff’s demand.

Last year, during a raid in Richmond, Va., federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents surrounded and detained a person during a removal operation. Carrying out President Trump's hard-line immigration policies has exposed ICE to public scrutiny and criticism.
Last year, during a raid in Richmond, Va., federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents surrounded and detained a person during a removal operation. Carrying out President Trump's hard-line immigration policies has exposed ICE to public scrutiny and criticism.Read moreSteve Helber / AP

Philadelphia Sheriff Jewell Williams has told federal authorities that Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents now must identify themselves to deputies if they are on duty inside a city courtroom.

His action comes after an Inquirer story this week detailed incidents in which ICE agents entered a city courtroom searching for an immigrant they planned to detain, arrested another man inside the Criminal Justice Center, and apprehended at least three others as they entered or left the courthouse.

“Unless [agents] identify themselves to the deputy assigned to the courtroom, we have no idea who they are or what their intent is,” Williams said. “An ICE agent may be perceived as an intruder trying to disrupt or intimidate participants in a proceeding, in which case our deputies would intervene.”

ICE officials said Tuesday that they have a courthouse policy in place and plan to adhere to it, in accordance with federal law and Department of Homeland Security guidelines.

That policy says the agency’s courthouse activities are consistent with longstanding, nationwide law enforcement practices, and often are necessitated by the unwillingness of some jurisdictions to cooperate with ICE.

In courthouses, the policy says, agents move against specific, targeted immigrants who have criminal convictions, who are gang members, national security or public-safety threats, who have been ordered removed from the United States or who have reentered after deportation.

Immigrant advocates say ICE routinely departs from its own policy, arresting people who come to court for traffic violations or to make child-support payments.

Williams’ instruction does not prevent agents from entering courtrooms or, apparently, from arresting people. His statement said that the agents, who typically dress in plainclothes, can confidentially disclose their presence and intentions to the deputy in the courtroom.

Still, it marks another step in the sanctuary city’s combat against the Trump administration’s tough enforcement tactics. It also raises the tension surrounding ICE’s increasing moves into courtrooms across the country.

Many advocates and judges say ICE agents’ presence impedes the administration of justice — that fear of trouble over their immigration status can lead witnesses to violent crimes to stay away, victims of domestic violence to not testify, and children and families who need court assistance to go without.

Last year, nearly 70 former judges from 23 states wrote to ICE’s acting director, Ronald Vitiello, saying the arrests were disrupting the criminal justice system and needed to stop.

Williams said he learned from the Inquirer report that plainclothes agents had staked out city courtrooms to try to arrest undocumented immigrants or others wanted for immigration violations. In Philadelphia, sheriff’s deputies provide security for all courthouses, including the Criminal Justice Center, City Hall, Family Court, Traffic Court, and Philadelphia Parking Authority Court.

“Our deputies provide security for everyone in the court,” he said. “They know if police officers are present. Deputies need to know if other law enforcement officers are present.”

Temple University law professor Jennifer Lee called the sheriff’s action “certainly a step in the right direction.”

“It helps keep the operations of ICE transparent at the courthouse. It would be great if it could go a step further and be turned into a more official protocol,” said Lee, who helps lead the Sheller Center for Social Justice at Temple.

For example, she said, New York courts require ICE agents to both identify themselves and notify court officers of their specific law enforcement purpose. That information is relayed to the judge presiding over the particular case, with the goal of minimizing disruption to the courts.

This year the Sheller Center released a report saying ICE apprehensions in and around local Pennsylvania courthouses have frightened away undocumented witnesses and victims, disrupting the course of justice.

In the city, ICE entry into courthouses has led Community Legal Services to accuse the agency of having “created an atmosphere of fear” that can bar immigrants from justice. CLS, which provides free services to people in need, helped develop a model policy to stop ICE arrests in courthouses.

It states, basically, that judges have authority to regulate conduct in the courtroom, the courthouse and its outlying areas to ensure the fair administration of justice, and they should use their power to ban immigration arrests in those places.

This week’s Inquirer story detailed how, on March 21, public defender John Lopez sought to introduce himself to a man in a Muhammad Ali T-shirt, seated in the back of Courtroom 906 in the CJC.

The man flashed a badge, identifying himself as an ICE agent, and showed Lopez a photo. It was his client.

“Is this person here?” the agent asked.

“No,” Lopez answered, honestly. The client had not shown up to court.

The lawyer said in an interview that his client, whom he declined to identify, was scheduled to face a misdemeanor charge of second-degree assault.

On Friday, March 29, ICE agents arrested an undocumented Guatemalan man inside the CJC, as the man prepared to face domestic-assault charges before Municipal Court Judge Karen Simmons.

Since January, at least three other people have been detained by ICE as they entered or left the CJC, the courthouse at 13th and Filbert.

ICE officials say it’s safer for agents, offenders, and the public when arrests take place in courthouses, because everyone entering the building has been screened for weapons. Courthouse arrests can be necessary in places that refuse to let agents enter their prisons and jails, the agency said.

ICE officials say that, generally, witnesses in cases and family members or friends accompanying “the target alien” are not to be arrested unless they pose a threat to public safety or interfere with ICE.