U.S. immigration agency clarifies policy on courthouse arrests

NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, announced a new set of guidelines on Wednesday for how it will conduct arrests in courthouses.

The new policy was in response to concerns about immigration agents picking up people targeted for deportation after their court appearances on other matters.

Under the new guidelines ICE will continue to target immigrants in the country illegally at courthouses but would avoid arresting their friends and family members unless they pose a threat to public safety or interfere with ICE actions.

ICE officers will also avoid carrying out enforcement actions in areas that are dedicated to non-criminal proceedings, such as family court - without prior approval from supervisors - and will try to make arrests out of public view.

Immigrant advocates and local officials have become increasingly alarmed about the courthouse arrests in the year since President Donald Trump took office. They say the arrests have the effect of deterring attendance at hearings and discouraging witnesses from testifying about crimes.

“A growing number of victims have expressed reluctance to move forward with criminal prosecutions due to fear of being deported,” New York’s Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office said in a statement in August.

In New York, the number of ICE arrests in courthouses jumped to 139 in 2017 from 11 in 2016, according to the Immigrant Defense Project advocacy group.

ICE has said it makes courthouse arrests more often in cities like New York that have shown reluctance to turn over some immigrants to federal authorities once they are released from jail.

Since people entering court are screened for weapons, a courthouse provides a safe space for agents to arrest individuals, the agency said, adding that it was safer than trying to pick up immigrants in the community.

On a call with reporters a senior ICE official said witnesses to crimes would not be targeted even if they had outstanding immigration violations.

Immigrant victims of crime who are in the country illegally but who cooperate with law enforcement can be eligible for visas that allow them to stay in the country.

The agency said it developed the guidelines in consultation with groups involved in the criminal justice system including the Conference of Chief Justices.

In response to the directive, California Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye said, “If followed correctly, this written directive is a good start. It’s essential that we protect the integrity of our state court justice system and protect the people who use it.”

The Immigrant Defense Project said the policy was a continuation of current ICE practices that “trample the constitutional rights of immigrant communities.”

ICE has a policy, that it says is still in place, to not arrest immigrants in “sensitive locations” including schools, medical facilities, religious institutions and during demonstrations.

Reporting by Mica Rosenberg; Editing by Sue Horton and Andrew Hay