Immigration and Customs Enforcement has put into writing guidance for civil immigration enforcement actions at local courthouses. The gist: It won't stop enforcement activity at county courthouses, though the Oregon Supreme Court's chief justice says the formal directive does address some concerns that ICE courthouse activity might discourage people from seeking justice.
Still, ICE's new directive is only a codified document of existing ICE practices rather than a major change in policy. According to an FAQ on the ICE.gov website, ICE has for some time established practices related to immigration enforcement at local courthouses.
"However, the increasing unwillingness of some jurisdictions to cooperate with ICE in the safe and orderly transfer of targeted aliens inside their prisons and jails has necessitated additional at-large arrests, and ICE felt it was appropriate to more formally codify its practices in a policy directive that its law enforcement professionals and external stakeholders can consult when needed," according to the FAQ.
The directive says agents should not target friends or accompanying family members of targeted individuals.
Additionally, ICE says it is directing officers to avoid enforcement at courthouse areas dedicated to family and civil law matters and to instead operate in non-public areas of courthouses.
"That was one of our big concerns," said Phil Lemman, a spokesperson with the government and media relations manager at the Oregon Judicial Department.
"If someone comes in and wanting a restraining order, if there's a child custody issue that needs to be resolved right away, then people shouldn’t have an immigration enforcement action hanging over their heads."
The directive was released the same week state Supreme Court chief justices from across the country, including Balmer, returned from a midyear meeting of the Conference of Chief Justices in Nevada. According to Lemman, justices spent months working with ICE to address concerns over enforcement activity at local courthouses. Balmer, along with California's Supreme Court Chief Tani Cantil-Sakauye, Washington's Mary E. Fairhurst and others have expressed concern in the past about how ICE activity impedes the mission of the courts.
Lemman says he sees the directive as a middle ground, though Balmer's preference was for ICE to add local courthouses to its list of sensitive locations. A sensitive location designation prohibits ICE from enforcement operations except in "exigent" circumstances. Current sensitive locations include schools, hospitals, places of worship or public demonstrations.
"ICE has legitimate legal issues that they're trying to do their job, and so that [sensitive location designation] was a preference by the chief, but these are what we hope are pretty important steps in addressing some of the biggest concerns that we have in making sure safe places that people can come to seek justice," Lemman said.
In April last year, Balmer wrote a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and then-Secretary of Homeland Security John F. Kelly requesting agents designate courthouses as sensitive locations. ICE said no .
ICE has continued to legitimize enforcement activity at courthouses as among the safest locations to make arrests, specifically because visitors are screened for weapons and contraband before entering. It's also said courthouse arrests are necessitated by a jurisdiction's unwillingness to cooperate with ICE.
The Oregon Judicial Department plans to send the directive to all presiding judges and circuit courts.
"If there continue to be issues and problems, then I think those will come and the chief will decide how and whether and how best to address those," Lemman said. "And if those were continuing nationwide, then that would be different than if this [directive] addresses most of the areas of big concern for the chief justices."