Federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement authorities have agreed to halt arrests of migrants inside Philadelphia courthouses, as part of an accord that defines how agents may enter and act in the halls of justice, according to the Sheriff’s Department.
The new procedure, to take effect Monday, requires plainclothes ICE agents to identify themselves to sheriff’s deputies at the front-door security stations, to reveal whether they are armed, and to state where in the building they intend to go. Those deputies will alert their supervisors, who could contact the judge in the courtroom to which the agent is headed, said Sheriff’s Deputy Chief Paris Washington.
ICE officials said they could not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The new guidelines come five days after The Inquirer reported on a March 21 incident in which an ICE agent, dressed in a Muhammad Ali T-shirt in a Criminal Justice Center courtroom, flashed a badge at a public defender and asked the lawyer about his client.
Defender John Lopez had noticed the man in Courtroom 906 and walked over to introduce himself. The man produced a photo of Lopez’s client.
“Is this person here?” the agent asked.
“No,” Lopez answered, which was true.
Washington said the agreement seeks to eliminate that kind of incident. Agents can conduct surveillance but should not approach attorneys or have physical contact with anyone, he said.
Sheriff’s deputies provide security for all courthouses, including the Stout Center for Criminal Justice, City Hall, Family Court, Traffic Court, and Philadelphia Parking Authority Court.
“I think it’s a fantastic real step forward,” said Temple University law professor Jennifer Lee, who has worked to limit ICE presence in courts. “If there’s an actual agreement, that’s important, because there’s some recognition by ICE that they don’t need to conduct these activities in courthouses.”
ICE agents still can make arrests immediately outside Philadelphia courthouses — a vexation to immigration advocates, who say that frightens away undocumented witnesses, victims, and defendants.
Despite the local agreement, national ICE policy continues to allow agents to take action inside courthouses. In those settings, they can move against specific, targeted immigrants: those who have criminal convictions, are gang members, pose national security or public-safety threats, have been ordered removed from the United States, or have reentered the country after deportation.
Attorney Brennan Gian-Grasso, who leads the Philadelphia chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, was doubtful of the new procedures having a positive impact.
“ICE has no place inside a Philadelphia courthouse,” he said. “I don’t know how much this does to change the climate. And I don’t know how much it represents a change in ICE’s intimidation of people who are trying to participate in civil society.”
Agents can still locate someone inside the courthouse, then follow that person outside to make an arrest, he noted.
The Sheriff’s Department has asked ICE to provide advance notice of planned actions immediately around the courthouse. ICE has arrested at least three people this year as they entered or left the Criminal Justice Center in Center City.
“We don’t want any friendly-fire incidents,” Washington said, citing concern inside and outside city courthouses that sheriff’s deputies might not realize ICE was making an arrest — only that an armed man seemed to be threatening someone.
Washington, who runs the operations division, said the agreement came out of a Thursday meeting between Sheriff’s Department, Homeland Security, and Philadelphia ICE officials.
The new guidelines come too late for Jesus Sical, 45, an undocumented Guatemalan immigrant who was arrested inside the CJC on March 29 as he tried to attend his preliminary hearing on domestic-assault charges, according to his attorney and other lawyers.
He now is being held by ICE at the Pike County Correctional Facility in Lords Valley, pending deportation.
Municipal Court Judge Karen Simmons, who was ready to hear Sical’s case, was upset that ICE short-circuited the justice system. Defense lawyers pointed out that while Sical has a 12-year-old drunken-driving conviction, on the day of his arrest he stood legally innocent of assault, with no court having ruled. ICE says it moved against Sical after Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration, as is its policy, refused the agency’s request to keep him in a city jail for pickup.
When Sical was arrested, he was not hiding or on the run. He was free on bail and preparing for his trial, accused of a vicious attack on his stepdaughter.
Simmons said she learned about Sical’s arrest only when his attorney phoned her chambers. “I don’t understand, nor do I believe it was appropriate, to not allow the person to come into the courtroom [and] handle his case,” the judge said.
She has told the Defender Association and the District Attorney’s Office that their attorneys are to alert her immediately if they notice ICE agents in her courtroom.
According to ICE, 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. And, officials say, courthouse arrests can be necessary in places that refuse to let agents enter their prisons and jails to take immigrants into custody.
ICE says it doesn’t know when or where Sical entered the United States.
On May 28, 2007, court records show, Sical was pulled over in the 7900 block of Bustleton Avenue by police officers, who charged him with drunken driving. His blood-alcohol content was 0.184 percent, far above the legal 0.08 definition. Sical was convicted in 2008 and sentenced to three to six days in jail, six months’ probation, and participation in drug-and-alcohol treatment programs.
That would not be his last time in trouble. Shortly before 2 a.m. on Jan. 30, 2019, police were called to a home in the 1800 block of Faunce Street in Rhawnhurst. They found Sical’s stepdaughter, Jennifer Dayana Garcia, with bruises on her neck, scratches on her face, and cuts and bruises on both hands.
She told police that Sical, angry that she had sent money to her mother in Guatemala, threatened her, “I could assault you in ways that your mother would never know. … I could grab you and have sex with you and no one would ever know.”
He fixed her in a headlock, then began strangling her, Garcia told police. She got free and started to scream, but Sical clamped his hands over her mouth, cutting off her breathing.
She broke loose, ran out of the house and called police, Garcia said.
Police charged Sical with assault, strangulation, and making terroristic threats. After ICE arrested him, the charges were withdrawn.