New rules seek to limit ICE arrests in N.J. courthouses

ICE agents should present a warrant to courthouse security, the rules from the head of the N.J. Supreme Court say. But it’s unclear how they’ll be enforced.

New guidelines issued by New Jersey Supreme Court will make it more difficult for federal immigration officers to make arrests at courthouses in the state.(Charles Reed/U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement via AP)

New guidelines issued by New Jersey Supreme Court will make it more difficult for federal immigration officers to make arrests at courthouses in the state.(Charles Reed/U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement via AP)

New rules seek to limit arrests by federal immigration officers at New Jersey courthouses, but it’s unclear what recourse courthouse personnel will have should officers fail to comply.

The directive issued Thursday by New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner also orders court staff to cut back on the information they collect about people’s immigration status.

The top judge said he expected Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to carry out civil enforcement actions in courthouses “only in rare situations.” But when they do, he said, ICE agents should identify themselves and courthouse security personnel should ask to see a copy of a warrant that authorizes an arrest.

But no mention is made of what will happen if those guidelines are flaunted. A spokesman for the New Jersey Courts declined to address that question directly.

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“The intention of the directive is to lay out the policy for courthouse personnel in dealing with federal immigration agents,” the spokesman, Peter McAleer, said.

The directive is Rabner’s latest attempt to stop enforcement actions by ICE agents in and around courthouses, which he has said discourages undocumented people from reporting crimes, seeking assistance and testifying in cases over fears it could lead to their deportation.

Judges nationally have likewise raised concerns that courthouse arrests threaten to undermine the justice system for everybody — citizens and non-citizens alike — if victims, defendants, witnesses and family members do not feel secure appearing in court.

Rabner appears to be making progress toward the goal of ending courthouse arrests, noting in his directive that John Tsoukaris, ICE’s field office director for Newark, said in a recent meeting that ICE will “minimize” arrests in courthouses.

“The statement is accurate,” an agency spokesman confirmed. “ICE has always sought to minimize arrests inside courthouses. Arrest location determinations are based on case specific circumstances.”

The spokesman said ICE does not track the number of arrests that occur at courthouses, a tactic ICE has previously said is often necessitated by the unwillingness of local officials to transfer targeted individuals to its custody.

The agency has also said courthouse arrests reduce safety risks because visitors are typically screened for weapons before entering such buildings.

Rabner raised the issue of courthouse arrests in an April 2017 letter to then-Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly. He said ICE had recently arrested two people who had showed up for court appearances in a New Jersey court and asked that courthouses be added to a list of “sensitive locations” where ICE enforcement activity should not happen.

The list includes schools, hospitals, houses of worship and public demonstrations.

“To ensure the effectiveness of our system of justice, courthouses must be viewed as a safe forum,” he wrote. “Enforcement actions by ICE agents inside courthouses would produce the opposite result and effectively deny access to the courts.”

The Department of Homeland Security declined to make the change. But it did issue a new regulation in January 2018 stating that ICE agents “should generally avoid enforcement actions in courthouses.” When such actions do occur, it added, they should take place in non-public areas of the courthouse and be conducted in collaboration with court security staff.

Rabner’s directive also says courts should retain information about the immigration status of those who appear there “only when needed to fulfill a legitimate court purpose,” such as during criminal matters or adoption proceedings.

“Courts will no longer collect immigration-related data for demographic or other non-specific purposes,” the directive says.

Rabner said the new rules are consistent with the sweeping immigration order issued by state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal in November that limited cooperation between local law enforcement and ICE.

They do not go as far as a directive issued in New York last month that requires ICE officers to show a federal judicial warrant or order to a New York judge or court attorney before making an arrest in a courthouse.

ICE officers often rely on administrative warrants issued by the agency as opposed to judicial warrants, which are approved by a court.

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