Immigration operations last week targeting a handful of people leaving Downtown Albuquerque courts after scheduled hearings have alarmed local civil rights watchdogs, advocates against domestic violence, criminal defense attorneys and others who are calling on the courts to intervene.
Chief judges at 2nd Judicial District and Metro Court confirmed that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents waited in courtrooms or outside the courthouses to take certain people into custody.
It’s not clear if this is an escalation of a standing ICE practice or if it is coming to light amid national scrutiny of President Trump’s crackdown on illegal immigration.
“Given the national rhetoric, it’s very difficult to say whether or not this is a trend or these are just a couple of isolated incidents,” 2nd Judicial District Chief Judge Nan Nash said, noting she is not aware of such enforcement in her 14 years at the court.
Either way, immigrants rights groups say the threat of arrest by ICE and subsequent deportation has immigrant communities scared to come to court – even as victims or witnesses to crime.
“This activity has a chilling effect on victims seeking justice, on witnesses who are crucial to the process, and even on the criminal defendant who doesn’t expect basically a death sentence on going to court,” said Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, executive director of Enlace Comunitario, a long-standing group that helps Spanish-speaking women survive and escape domestic violence.
She said she is not opposed to immigration enforcement for violent offenders or people charged with drug crimes, but she thinks some of the people targeted in the actions this month have not fit that description.
Public defense attorney David James said that his client, who he declined to name, was arrested by ICE on Friday as he walked off of the premises after a hearing in District Court. The client is facing one count of drug trafficking and if convicted would face deportation.
James said he was uncertain of his client’s immigration status and noted that he had no prior criminal history in New Mexico.
“It seems like the mere accusation is sufficient to qualify for deportability,” James said, although the defendant’s status with ICE was not known Tuesday.
The names and case details of those arrested by ICE were not known to judges or activists Tuesday.
ICE spokeswoman Leticia Zamarripa could not provide information about the courthouse action policy or practice and said she would need the names of those arrested to provide details.
Meanwhile, at least two groups have sent letters to court officials seeking a halt to the practice.
Enlace Comunitario and 32 other domestic violence victim advocacy groups from across the state sent a letter last week to the state Supreme Court asking justices to stop allowing ICE agents inside courthouses.
The Administrative Office of the Courts on Tuesday confirmed it has received communication from people concerned about the practice – for the first time, AOC spokesman Barry Massey said.
But neither the AOC nor the Supreme Court can bar ICE from courthouses.
“The AOC or a state court does not have jurisdiction to stop ICE agents from being present at a courthouse,” Massey said in a statement. “In New Mexico, courthouses are public buildings and any person is permitted to enter the courthouse if they comply with the rules of the court, such as restrictions on bringing weapons into the building.”
Metro Court Chief Judge Henry Alaniz said Tuesday that ICE agents aren’t required to register before they come in his courthouse.
“The federal Constitution trumps the state Constitution,” Alaniz said, “and this is a public building and there is no way we can prohibit them from coming in.”
His main concern is that the actions don’t disrupt court proceedings, which he said has not happened either recently or over the years.
Others are more worried about the effect on people coming to court.
Peter Simonson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, said even if agents are allowed in court like the general public, their presence is different.
“I think you have to acknowledge their presence in the courtroom or at the courthouse door creates a barrier to accessing the court,” Simonson said. “And so I think it does raise legitimate due process concerns and may even rise to an actionable claim.”
He noted that undocumented immigrants have due process rights in criminal proceedings, even if they aren’t American citizens.
Matthew Coyte, president of the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, said it’s important that federal authorities seek a balance between immigration enforcement and the impact enforcement may have on local court proceedings.
“There are unintended consequences that result from federal agents working in the courthouses or outside the courthouses which are detrimental to public safety,” Coyte said. “It discourages people from showing up.”
The people who may choose to skip a hearing might be witnesses in trials, victims of domestic violence seeking help, even people with a traffic ticket. And skipping court hearings can trigger a bench warrant.
“We’re concerned that (enforcement activity) could increase,” Nash said, “and that it would keep people from coming to court to seek orders of protection or to do other business that they have before the court.”