"Protecting National Security and Upholding Public Safety": that's the motto of America's Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the branch of government tasked with enforcing immigration laws and investigating the criminal and terrorist activity of foreign nationals residing in the United States. Unfortunately, that's not quite the message they convey when they arrest witnesses, defendants, and victims in courthouses across the country. As a result of aggressive tactics like these, the federal agency has become a political lightning rod in 2018.
ICE agents have a history of targeting immigrants in the sanctity of courthouses. Those appearing to contest traffic tickets, testify as victims of crimes, and even parents in family court have been arrested for their immigration status. A number of judges across the nation — 67 judges from 23 states, to be precise — have taken a stand against this behavior. These judges believe ICE dissuades immigrants from appearing in court, even if it's for their own protection.
Former Colorado Chief Justice Michael Bender has recently thrown his hat into the fight. In a letter published in early December, the judges made their argument clear.
"Together, we have presided over thousands of cases in trial and appellate courts," it stated. "We know that judges simply cannot do their jobs — and our justice system cannot function effectively — if victims, defendants, witnesses, and family members do not feel secure in accessing the courthouse."
The letter specifically cites an incident that occurred in 2017, when several domestic violence cases were dropped because the victims, who were immigrants, refused to testify; they feared running into officers from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in court.
Although a reform to ICE's policy went into effect last January, the judges simply don't believe the changes are substantial enough to make a difference. Under the new policy, officers are barred from arresting immigrants visiting the courthouse as family members or witnesses in many cases — but not all. The judges are confident that these "fine-line distinctions" will not be enough to assuage immigrants' fears. They want a complete ban on arrests in court, much like the policy that protects churches, schools, and hospitals from experiencing law enforcement activity.
ICE doesn't have the greatest record when it comes to their targeting system: many of their detainees have a clean record, 18% had resided continuously in the U.S for 10 or more years, and 25% had been in the country for at least five years. That kind of history doesn't seem to match that stark, patriotic motto at all, and the current policies are doing little to help.
Despite the presence of several nonprofits — such as Together Colorado — working to change the attitude toward immigrants, it will be most effective if implemented at a federal level. Hopefully, more judges will voice their support like former Chief Justice Michael Bender.