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Legal experts say ICE arrests at courthouses threaten justice

A judge, a prosecutor and a law professor agreed that arresting undocumented immigrants at American courthouses scares away witnesses and crime victims and must be stopped. The three made their case at a program Jan. 25 at the American Bar Association’s Midyear Meeting in Las Vegas titled “Putting ICE on Ice?” 

Arrests by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) jumped from 77,000 in fiscal 2016 to 110,000 in 2017. Some arrests took place in state courthouses, prompting protests by lawyers, judges and academics.

In December 2018, 67 former state and federal judges sent a letter to ICE expressing concern about courthouse arrests. In 2017, the ABA House of Delegates had called on Congress to add courthouses to the list of “sensitive locations” where immigration authorities cannot make arrests except in emergency situations.

At the ABA program, Kevin Curtin of the Middlesex County District Attorney’s Office near Boston said courthouse arrests of immigrants pose “a very grave access-to-justice issue.”

Circuit Court Judge Denise Langford Morris said ICE agents have not made any arrests at her courthouse in Oakland County, Mich., near Detroit, but “we would have pandemonium if we had witnesses, victims and defendants all terrified to come to a state courthouse.”

A third panelist, Christopher Lasch of the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, proposed that state judges act to prevent ICE arrests in their courthouses. Morris suggested that state judges work with state legislators to prevent such arrests.

The program was sponsored by the ABA Criminal Justice Section.

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