BuzzFeed News reports that when a prosecutor in New York needed testimony as part of a burglary case, the victim panicked. She was undocumented. “The Queens County prosecutor, Gee Won Cha, assured her that her immigration status would play no role in the prosecution’s case,” the report said. But that’s wasn’t enough to reassure the victim. “Instead, she informed me that she no longer wished to cooperate with the investigation because she was terrified that she would be arrested by ICE if she went to the courthouse to testify before the grand jury in this case,” BuzzFeed News reports the prosecutor wrote in a filing.
Despite the prosecutor’s best efforts, there was every reason for the victim to be afraid. ICE sweeps at state courthouses have been a years-long tactic that ICE escalated under the previous administration. In just one of the most despicable examples of that time, agents took into custody a transgender woman in Texas as she attended court in order to secure a protective order against an abuser. As the horror stories racked up, so did the opposition to the sweeps, including from dozens of former judges who called for courthouses to be off-limits.
“Surveys of law enforcement and legal service providers confirm that ICE’s reliance on immigration arrests in courthouses instills fear in clients and deters them from seeking justice in a court building,” they wrote in a letter to then-acting ICE director Ronald Vitiello. “Affidavits detail persons ‘terrified’ to request orders protecting them from violence or enforcing child support, to serve as witnesses, and to defend themselves.” States like New York, meanwhile, took action through legislation to block such sweeps. Some federal judges also took action against ICE from their own courtrooms.
DHS said in its statement that “immigration enforcement action may be taken in or near a courthouse only in certain limited instances, including the following: (1) it involves a national security matter, (2) there is an imminent risk of death, violence, or physical harm to any person, (3) it involves hot pursuit of an individual who poses a threat to public safety, or (4) there is an imminent risk of destruction of evidence material to a criminal case.”
BuzzFeed News reporter Hamed Aleaziz tweeted that California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, among those who criticized the previous administration on its courthouse sweeps, called the Biden administration’s new policy “welcome news. This new immigration policy values the sanctity of our state courthouses.”
President Joe Biden has also nominated Harris County, Texas, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez to formally lead the agency, which has not had a Senate-confirmed director since 2017 and is still being led by the previous administration’s final acting ICE director, Tae Johnson. Gonzalez in 2017 ended his department’s participation in the racist and flawed 287(g) program that deputizes local law enforcement to act as mass deportation agents, citing financial costs. He also publicly criticized the previous administration’s raids, tweeting they “drive undocumented families further into the shadows & damage our community safety.”