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Report: ICE arrests of undocumented immigrants at Pennsylvania courthouses scare away victims, witnesses

Courthouses have become an emerging battleground. ICE insists its actions are consistent with long-standing law-enforcement practices, while immigration advocates and some judges say courts are being undermined.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement make an arrest.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement make an arrest.Read moreImmigration and Customs Enforcement (custom credit)

In Bucks County, an undocumented Mexican national was detained by immigration authorities when he went to the Ottsville Magisterial District Court to pay a fine for driving without a license.

In Montgomery County, federal agents commonly wait outside the courthouse with photos of their targets, arresting immigrants before they go into the building.

In Berks County, an attorney reported that agents sat through her client’s Protection from Abuse hearing, then arrested him at its conclusion. Another man was arrested when making a child-support payment at the courthouse.

Those allegations and more are contained in a new report by the Sheller Center for Social Justice at Temple University, which says that apprehensions by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in and around local courthouses in Pennsylvania have frightened away undocumented witnesses and victims, disrupting the course of justice. ICE agents often are assisted in making arrests by local courthouse personnel who provide information on people’s legal statuses, the study added.

“The report helped confirm that this is not exclusively a Philadelphia problem,” said Jennifer Lee, a Temple law professor and a leader of the Sheller Center. “It’s about the Philadelphia ICE office reaching out across the state, in counties with significant immigrant populations.”

The report found:

  1. Problems related to ICE enforcement in and around Pennsylvania courthouses are widespread in communities with large immigrant populations.

  2. Immigrants' ICE-driven fear of going to court means they may not attend legal proceedings, so “courts are in turn less able to effectively adjudicate cases.”

  3. ICE has made arrests or collaborated with court staff, particularly probation workers, in at least 13 counties, including Philadelphia, Montgomery, Delaware, Chester, and Bucks.

Asked about the new Sheller Center report, ICE officials said their courthouse enforcement includes actions against specific targets who have criminal convictions, are gang members or national-security threats, or have been ordered to be deported or were previously deported. Witnesses in cases, and family members or friends who are accompanying “the target alien,” are not to be arrested except in special circumstances, such as if they pose a threat to public safety or interfere with ICE, the agency said.

ICE officials said arrests undertaken in courthouses are safer for its officers, the public, and the person being arrested, because all those entering are screened and searched for weapons. Agents are directed to generally avoid making arrests in civil proceedings and in places such as Family Court or Small Claims Court.

The report, “Obstructing Justice: The Chilling Effect of ICE’s Arrests of Immigrants at Pennsylvania Courthouses,” was released Wednesday, two days after a study by the advocacy group Immigrant Defense Project harshly criticized ICE enforcement in New York courts.

The IDP said ICE had made more arrests, expanded operations into upstate counties it had previously ignored, and targeted particularly vulnerable immigrants, including victims of human trafficking and domestic violence.

Last year, a joint ProPublica-Inquirer investigation showed that the Philadelphia ICE office has been particularly aggressive. In 2017, the Philadelphia office, with agents fanning out across its three-state region, arrested more undocumented immigrants without criminal convictions than any of the 23 other ICE offices in the nation. That was especially striking given that Pennsylvania’s undocumented population ranks 16th in the country, with West Virginia and Delaware far behind.

Since President Donald Trump took office, deportation officers have been freed from an Obama-era mandate to focus their resources on deporting immigrants with serious criminal convictions. Now every undocumented immigrant is a potential target for arrest.

ICE generally refrains from making arrests in churches, schools, hospitals, and college campuses, operating under what are called “sensitive locations” guidelines.

That guidance does not cover courthouses, which have become a battleground: ICE says its actions are consistent with long-standing law-enforcement practices, while immigration advocates and some judges say courts are being undermined because undocumented victims and witnesses stay away.

In 2018, ICE codified its guidelines for sending deportation agents to federal, state, and local courthouses to make arrests.

“When practicable, ICE officers and agents will conduct enforcement actions discreetly to minimize their impact on court proceedings,” the directive said. “Courthouse arrests are often necessitated by the unwillingness of jurisdictions to cooperate with ICE in the transfer of custody of aliens from their prisons and jails.”

The Sheller Center study is based on surveys and interviews with lawyers, legal-aid organizations, victim-services advocates, and community organizations across Pennsylvania. It also relied on questionnaires and on ICE material that was obtained by the Immigration Legal Resource Center under the Freedom of Information Act.

The report urged the state Supreme Court to develop protocols to limit ICE enforcement at courthouses, stop court personnel from cooperating, and bar immigrants’ legal statuses from being collected by the courts. The cases mentioned in the report occurred mostly in 2017 and 2018.

The center described cases where ICE agents entered courtrooms, apprehended people in hallways and common areas, and waited outside courthouses to arrest undocumented migrants when they arrived or left. An attorney in Philadelphia said she received notification from ICE that her juvenile client, who had been adjudicated delinquent but was doing well in foster care, would be arrested at the child’s next hearing.

Philadelphia attorneys reported that clients were arrested by ICE when they came to check in with probation officials. The same thing happened in Chester and Allegheny Counties, the study said.

The report describes an email conversation between a Beaver County probation officer and an ICE agent, who sought to arrest an undocumented man:

“I can attempt to get him to report in person if he needs to be taken into custody,” the probation officer wrote.

“Sounds good,” the ICE agent responded. “Appreciate your willingness to assist.”

“He was just sentenced only a week ago, so chances are good that I can get him in here without suspicion,” the probation officer answered. “I can tell him he has to sign supervision papers, etc. Just let me know.”