ICE Faces Criticism for “Sensitive Locations Policy”

Out in New Jersey, the Chief Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court Stuart Rabner has come out hard against the exception in the Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) Sensitive Locations Policy. In a letter asking for an end to the practice, the high ranking judge criticizes ICE’s practice of waiting in courthouses for undocumented immigrants who are victims of a crime, defendants in a case, or simply there to testify in proceedings. He argues that the practice not only denies access to the courts to people who are undocumented by making them fear arrest and deportation, it also torpedoes the legal process by guaranteeing a lack of cooperation in ongoing cases where somebody might get grabbed by ICE on the way out of testifying against a criminal.

He’s not criticizing the practice for no reason. Just in the last couple months ICE agents have arrested several undocumented immigrants in courthouses. Just recently they have arrested a woman  seeking a protection order  to keep her safe from an abusive spouse. Another man was arrested as he left a proceeding, otherwise free to go after a civil case.

ICE agents have responded to Rabner with a resounding no. As written, the Sensitive Locations Policy places no restrictions on arrests made at courthouses. Even if it did, the actual protections of the policy are far from absolute even where they do apply.

ICEICE’s Sensitive Locations Policy

The Sensitive Locations Policy is very much what it sounds like-a policy of ICE limiting enforcement actions at sensitive locations. These locations include schools (either at the school or when a parent is picking up or dropping off a child), medical treatment facilities, places of worship, ceremonies like weddings and funerals, or during public demonstrations such as a march or rally for a cause. You’ll notice courthouses are nowhere on that list.

Courthouses not only don’t make the cut in this policy as written, they are explicitly not included. Even if they were, the policy isn’t a blanket ban on arrests in sensitive locations but rather more of a strong suggestion. First, it only limits enforcement actions. This includes actual apprehensions, arrests, searches, or surveillance. However, it doesn’t include them entering a sensitive location to get records or documents to later use against undocumented immigrants, serving subpoenas or notice of proceedings, and other more administrative actions.

Although it suggests that arrests at sensitive locations be avoided, the policy doesn’t stop ICE from making arrests.  Agents just need permission from a supervisor before proceeding. Even without permission, they can make an arrest-so long as they do so as discreetly as possible-where there are circumstances related to national security, terrorism,  public safety, or destruction of evidence.

The policy is in place to ensure that everybody is free to utilize crucial services without fear of repercussion. Education, health care, worship-all incredibly important. Doesn’t it seem odd that legal services aren’t on that list? Don’t we want everybody to enjoy the protections of the law and help others when they witness crimes? The protection of our laws-both for undocumented immigrants and citizens whose cases they might testify in-are a similarly crucial service to education of health care. However, the sad truth is that even were courthouses included in the policy the protections might still not be enough.

Sensitive Locations Policy Not as Strong a Protection as it Was

To say that the attitude towards immigration has changed after the Obama administration passed the torch to President Trump. Besides Trump’s failed immigration ban orders, he has also issued an executive order which drastically changes the approach of ICE agents.

Under the Obama administration, ICE agents were told to prioritize targeting gang members and violent criminals for deportation. For the most part, they were not going after anybody else. Trump’s order substantially expands those ICE is meant to target. Under Trump the agency is to target, in no particular order, undocumented immigrants who “have been convicted of any criminal offense; have been charged with any criminal offense, where such charge has not been resolved; have committed acts that constitute a chargeable criminal offense; have engaged in fraud or willful misrepresentation in connection with any official matter or application before a governmental agency; have abused any program related to receipt of public benefits; are subject to a final order of removal, but who have not complied with their legal obligation to depart the United States; or in the judgment of an immigration officer, otherwise pose a risk to public safety or national security.” If that sounds extremely broad, that’s because it is. Gone are the days of prioritization, every illegal immigrant is equally targeted.

What Trump’s order notably does not do is change the Sensitive Locations Policy, he has given ICE agents much wider leeway in how they act. This has led to much less strict consideration of the policy than in previous years. Just in the last few months ICE agents have raided a pre-school in San Francisco (apparently mistakenly), arrested a California man right after he dropped off his daughter at school and while he drove his other daughter to her classes. In Virginia, two men were arrested as they left the homeless shelter offered by their church.

Judge Rabner has a good point, access to the courts is crucial for our justice system to operate properly. However, as it stands it looks like the protection the Sensitive Location Policy would offer to undocumented immigrants seeking the protection of the law would be middling at best.

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