It was a disturbing scene.
A human shield around an immigrant accused of encouraging child sexual abuse. Federal immigration agents using what appeared to be pepper spray.
But the arrest inside the Clatsop County Courthouse in July was memorable for another reason.
“You do not have a judicial warrant,” one activist insisted as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement took the man into custody.
ICE agents were using administrative warrants to take civil enforcement actions at county courthouses. They can’t do that anymore.
Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Martha Walters enacted a rule that prohibits ICE from making civil arrests without a judicial warrant at county courthouses and nearby entryways, sidewalks and parking lots.
“Adopting this rule protects the integrity of the state judicial process and will allow state courts to fully hold accountable people accused of a crime,” Walters said. “Arrests in courthouses have interfered with judicial proceedings and removed criminal defendants before they have been sentenced or completed their sentences. We are adopting this rule to maintain the integrity of our courts and provide access to justice — not to advance or oppose any political or policy agenda.”
We commend Chief Justice Walters for drawing this important line.
Earlier this year, Paula Brownhill, who at the time was the presiding judge of the Clatsop County Circuit Court, warned of the corrosive influence ICE detentions can have at county courthouses.
“Not only criminal defendants, but civil litigants, crime victims and witnesses may be reluctant to come to court for fear of encountering ICE,” Brownhill said. “If the district attorney is unable to prove a criminal case because an essential witness fails to appear, or a domestic violence victim is unable to obtain a protective order because she is afraid to come to the courthouse, our community is less safe for everyone.”
Judges across the United States have issued similar warnings.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement has explained that detentions at courthouses are happening more frequently because many sheriffs no longer turn people over to federal agents on their release from jail for other crimes. In Oregon, that practice largely ended after a federal judge ruled in 2014 that keeping people in jail on an ICE detainer — even for a few extra hours or days while their immigration status is reviewed — is a violation of their rights.
ICE also argues courthouse detentions are safer because people going to court are often screened for weapons and are less likely to resist than if they were at home or out on the street.
But ICE’s own guidelines recognize the delicate nature of these arrests. Federal agents are supposed to avoid civil enforcement actions in courthouses near noncriminal proceedings like family court and small claims court.
ICE has a separate policy on civil enforcement actions at sensitive locations like schools, hospitals and churches. Agents are only supposed to make arrests at these locations if there are exigent circumstances or if they have prior approval from their supervisors.
Our federal legislators — U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley and U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici — wisely want to make ICE’s policy the law and add courthouses to the list of sensitive locations. Unless Congress takes action, it will be up to states like Oregon and judges like Chief Justice Walters to make a stand.
The United States is a nation of immigrants. Sadly, we are often at our worst when we discuss immigration. ICE detentions at county courthouses have bled into the toxicity that surrounds President Donald Trump, but would be troublesome under any president.
People who are living in the country illegally are subject to deportation. People accused or convicted of crimes while in the country illegally greatly increase their risk of deportation.
Our county courthouses, though, are places where everyone should be able to come and seek justice under state law. They should not be used as convenient hunting grounds for federal immigration agents to make civil arrests.
ICE should get judicial warrants, or stay away.