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ICE Agents' Tactics Raise Concerns About Migrants' Access To The Justice System


Lawyers and judges in some parts of this country are noticing a trend. They say agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, are coming inside courthouses. The ICE agents find people appearing in court and ask about their immigration status. And they're making arrests. Though ICE says this is nothing new, it raises concerns about who has access to the justice system. Oregon Public Broadcasting's Conrad Wilson reports.

CONRAD WILSON, BYLINE: Attorneys in Multnomah County, which includes the city of Portland, say they only began seeing and getting reports of ICE agents inside the county's courthouses around mid-December. People, regardless of immigration status, come to courthouses to pay fines, file restraining orders, serve as witnesses and file lawsuits.

EDWARD JONES: When people don't get paid, they have a right to sue their employer for the wages they didn't get.

WILSON: Edward Jones is the chief criminal judge for Multnomah County. He says in those cases, the law is clear. A person's immigration status doesn't matter.

JONES: Every day there's a story about somebody getting arrested in the courthouse on an immigration issue. You can be sure there are people who didn't get paid who will think twice about filing that claim to recover their wages.

WILSON: In mid-February, Whitney Leeds walked up to three men inside the main courthouse in Denver, Colo. Leeds is a criminal defense and immigration attorney. And she asked the men if they were ICE agents.


WHITNEY LEEDS: I'm Whitney. Nice to meet you.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Nice to meet you.

LEEDS: Are you here with Immigration Enforcement?


LEEDS: You are here. OK. Are you coming here to make an arrest?


WILSON: It's a little hard to hear, but in the video posted online, one of the men tells Leeds yes, they're ICE agents. And they're planning to make an arrest. Leeds says in Denver, ICE made arrests at courthouses during the Obama administration.

LEEDS: I've had several instances where my clients have been arrested by ICE right outside of the courtroom in the hallway.

WILSON: During his presidency, Obama deported more than two and a half million people, the most of any president. Leeds says since the election, she expects more immigration arrests and more fear around the courthouse.

LEEDS: First because Trump's executive orders call for thousands of additional ICE agents to be hired. And secondly because he has prioritized for deportation not only any person who is here without lawful status but also any person who's ever been arrested for a crime.

WILSON: So far this year, ICE has made at least two arrests at courthouses in Southern California. In February, ICE arrested a woman in El Paso, Texas, who was filing a restraining order against her allegedly abusive boyfriend. And in January, the agency confirmed they arrested five people at or near courthouses in Portland, Ore.

ICE declined a recorded interview, but says those arrested had criminal records. In emails, an ICE spokeswoman says the agency's operating under routine long-standing policies. She says since the people they're trying to find sometimes provide false addresses, arrests at courthouses are often the only option.

ANDREA WILLIAMS: We always knew that ICE was hanging outside of the county courthouse. But the fact that they were inside marked a difference and a different level of aggression than we had seen before.

WILSON: Andrea Williams is the director of Causa, a Latino immigrant rights organization in Oregon.

WILLIAMS: People are afraid of physically going to the courthouse regardless of what their case is.

WILSON: Those fears, Williams says, are only sharpened by new reports of ICE arresting people without criminal records.

WILLIAMS: How else do our courts function if those that are involved in the cases don't show up? It's a complete breakdown of our judicial system.

WILSON: Local leaders in Oregon want the Department of Homeland Security to consider courthouses like hospitals, places of worship and other sensitive areas ICE avoids when making immigration arrests. Currently, those sensitive locations don't include courthouses. For NPR News, I'm Conrad Wilson in Portland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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