Progressives rallied in late February to demand that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement stop trolling Wisconsin courthouses, where agents are singling out Latino and Spanish-speaking people for interrogation, detention and possible deportation.
About 100 people on Feb. 24 assembled in icy weather outside the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office on Knapp Street in Milwaukee to protest racial profiling at courthouses in Milwaukee County, as well as in Racine, Dane, Ozaukee, Waukesha, Kenosha, Walworth, Winnebago, Washington and Rock counties.
Days earlier, 22 Democratic members of the Legislature called on acting ICE director John Sandweg to stop agents from profiling people in Wisconsin’s halls of justice, where people should feel safe, not afraid and intimidated, he said.
“The reports of ICE officials racially profiling and intimidating Latino and non-English speaking individuals in our courthouses are deeply troubling and need to be addressed immediately,” said state Rep. JoCasta Zamarripa of Milwaukee. “This conduct by ICE officials perpetuates racial stereotypes in our communities and deters Wisconsin residents from cooperating with law enforcement and our judicial system for fear of being profiled.”
Activists and lawmakers said ICE’s activities create a climate of fear, infringe on constitutional rights and even conflict with ICE policies.
“Courts should be a safe place for people complying with or seeking protection from the legal system,” said Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of Voces de la Frontera in Milwaukee.
Voces de la Frontera is the activist and advocacy group that organized the Feb. 24 rally. The group provided accounts of several people detained and interrogated by ICE agents attending “Spanish Days” at courthouses.
One man, Angel Perez Juan, went to the courthouse in Racine last August for a hearing after he was cited for driving without a license. He had lived in the United States since 1998. He’s married and has two adolescent children who are U.S. citizens. He had no criminal record.
Juan was seated in a courtroom with other Latino people awaiting hearings and the arrival of an interpreter, who was running late. ICE agents, according to Voces, entered the courtroom and began questioning people. Agents asked Juan for his name but not his immigration status before they shackled him and six others at the feet and hands.
Juan was detained in the Kenosha County Jail for three days and then transferred to the ICE office in Milwaukee, where he was interrogated and processed for deportation, which took place on Sept. 20, 2013.
“Juan believes he was arrested simply because of his Latino appearance and because he was at court for a hearing concerning driving without a license, in violation of agents’ warrantless authority,” Voces said.
The other accounts from Voces are similar: A woman was detained at a Milwaukee courthouse where she had gone to support her mother at a deportation hearing; a man was detained by ICE at an Ozaukee County courthouse where he had gone to pay a traffic fine.
Those accounts are similar to reports from watchdog groups monitoring ICE actions elsewhere in the country, including communities in Washington, Nebraska, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and California.
In Kern County, Calif., ICE courthouse actions drew a complaint from the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California last fall.
In a letter to Sandweg, the ACLU complained that ICE agents were arresting people who were “attempting to pay fines, appear for court hearings or get married. These arrests have impeded residents from complying with the law and accessing essential court services, and deterred them from doing so in the future — undermining the public health and safety of the entire Kern County community.”
In the October 2013 complaint, the ACLU also said it received reports of ICE agents racially profiling people at a courthouse in Santa Clara.
Immigration officials have said that ICE is adhering to its mandate and conducting targeted enforcement efforts, not random sweeps or raids. But critics raise constitutional concerns about the courthouse activities. ACLU of Southern California attorney
Michael Kaufman said the First and Fifth amendments protect access to the courts and ICE’s activities prevent people from complying with their obligations to pay citations, appear for hearings, obtain restraining orders, get licenses and use other court services.
Kaufman also referenced ICE policies outlined in 2011 memos by then-director John Morton.
One policy instructs ICE agents to avoid conducting law enforcement actions in “sensitive locations,” such as schools, hospitals, churches, sites of public demonstrations and other locations. “Attending court hearings is not only a constitutionally protected right, but it is vital to public safety that residents can appear in court, comply with law enforcement citations and court orders and seek other court services without fear of reprisal from ICE,” Kaufman said.
Another ICE memo issued by Morton in June 2011 set out a policy regarding prosecutorial discretion in the “apprehension, detention and removal of aliens.” Morton said ICE should be focused on the “arrest and removal of people with serious criminal histories, prior deportation orders and limited ties to the United States.”
The accounts provided by the ACLU of California and by Voces document ICE agents detaining and interrogating people with family in the United States, no criminal histories and no prior deportation orders.
“Members of our community should be able to enter our courthouses without being racially profiled,” said state Rep. Cory Mason of Racine. “These practices described by constituents are deeply disturbing and must be halted immediately.”
Mason said he and 21 colleagues want ICE to investigate the reports and “immediately halt these actions at all Wisconsin courthouses.”
Voces, too, issued a series of requests, calling for a meeting with ICE officials in Milwaukee, an investigation into courthouse arrests and interrogations and changes to ICE policies and trainings to “ensure that ICE agents do not arrest or detain people based on information they learn because the people have mandatory court appearances or otherwise access court services.”
A new poll from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press shows broad public support for comprehensive immigration reform that includes a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants.
The poll shows:
• 73 percent say there should be a way for undocumented immigrants to remain in the United States, but only 46 percent support a path to citizen- ship.
• About half say passage of new immigration legislation is extremely or very important.
• 55 percent of Republicans think the growing number of deportations is a good thing; 53 percent of Democrats think it is a bad thing.
Deportations, according to Pew Research Center, reached a record 419,384 in 2012. More than 1.6 mil- lion undocumented immigrants have been deported since President Barack Obama took office, and he still has three years left in his second term. In George W. Bush’s eight years in office, about 2 million people were deported.