"Courthouses should not be used as bait in the necessary enforcement of our country's immigration laws," wrote California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye recently in a letter to newly-appointed U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly.
She was attempting to act proactively in response to "reports from some of our trial courts that immigration agents appear to be stalking undocumented immigrants in our courthouses to make arrests." According to Judicial Council spokesman, ICE agents have been hanging out at courthouses around the state, intimidating immigrant litigants.
"She's concerned about access, public safety, and retaining the integrity and sanctity of the courthouse," the spokesperson said.
Should ICE be allowed to sweep up court litigants of questionable immigration status?
It seems only too easy for ICE to find unauthorized migrants by keeping track of the court dockets that concern immigrants. After all, if you're scheduled for a court date, you had better show up. How better to know where a specific individual will be?
However, as with the "sanctuary" movement, protecting unauthorized migrants from prosecution and deportation isn't necessarily the main concern. Even those who support strict enforcement and immediate deportation have serious issues with increasing the powers of immigration authorities.
The courts don't separate court cases involving unauthorized immigrants and others. There is no line they'll be in and no stamp on their paperwork. The only way hanging out at courthouses actually helps ICE is if the agency already knows a specific person has committed an immigration-related offense. Otherwise, the agents would simply be fishing for people with foreign-sounding last names, which is unconstitutional.
Perhaps even more important, U.S. citizens, lawful immigrants, visitors and unauthorized migrants all have the same rights in many regards, including the right to access the courts. Unauthorized immigrants are entitled to protection against employment discrimination and retaliation, for example, and have every right to appear in court to enforce those rights.
When ICE is a visible presence at the courthouse, however, the process of justice goes awry -- even in cases where neither party is an immigrant.
"But when you throw in witnesses, victims of crime, civil disputes, people who've been cheated by contractors -- they rely on the courts," explains a University of San Francisco law professor, "and if they are hearing that ICE hangs out at courts all of that gets discouraged. So it's a big problem; people are getting hysterical right now, they are afraid."
If our courts are to work, people need to be willing to participate in their proceedings. When it comes to immigration enforcement, the issues are often much more nuanced than whether we should vigorously enforce our immigration laws.