When is a promise not a promise? That's what Luciano Sandoval is asking after Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) broke its pledge to stop arresting individuals at Kern County, California courthouses.
In January, ICE agreed to stop enforcement actions at courthouses, after the American Civil Liberties Union of California raised concerns with federal officials over the abusive enforcement tactics. The ACLU provided documented cases of individuals who were detained after they went to a Bakersfield court to pay a fine or obtain a marriage license.
Yet despite ICE's guarantee to cease the sweeps, immigration agents renewed their enforcement efforts less than a month later. This time, however, agents arrested people after they left the courthouse grounds.
Among those detained in February is Sandoval, a father of six U.S.-born children, who went to the Kern County courthouse to pay a traffic ticket. Three days later, he was stopped by immigration officials while on his way to work. He now faces permanent separation from his family if he is deported.
Sandoval's arrest is not an isolated incident. Rodrigo Arenas of Bakersfield was arrested two days after he paid a traffic fine. Arenas was deported, leaving behind his family. There have also been reports of similar courthouse arrests across the country, including very recently in Wisconsin.
Surely, ICE officials understand that such misguided tactics at courthouses only serve to undermine public safety, not improve it.
In fact, a 2013 study by the University of Illinois at Chicago concluded that increased involvement of law enforcement in immigration has significantly heightened the fears that many Latinos have of police. The report found that 44 percent of those surveyed said they were less likely to report a crime because they are afraid the police would ask them or people knew about their immigration status. Likewise, because of ICE's courthouse arrests, many Kern County residents will be deterred from appearing at court to testify as witnesses or access critical life-saving services like restraining orders.
But the reality is that ICE doesn't need a study to alert officials to the harmful impact that certain enforcement actions have on public safety. Federal officials already know that certain locations should never be targeted for immigration enforcement because they undermine public safety and interfere with constitutionally protected rights.
In 2011, ICE issued a memo that designated certain places, known as "sensitive locations," as off limits to immigration agents, except for exigent circumstances. In that memo, ICE wisely recognized that allowing immigration agents to go into schools, churches and hospitals would create fear among local communities, who would then be less likely to cooperate with law enforcement or seek medical attention.
ICE should move swiftly to add state courthouses to the list of sensitive locations. Clearly, the same compelling reasons that led federal officials to designate hospitals and schools apply to courthouses. And ICE should immediately terminate the removal proceedings of Sandoval and the many others who have been arrested while accessing the courts. Only by living up to its promise can ICE ensure that the state courts remain safe and accessible to all.
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