Rosario Socope, a Guatemalan immigrant in the country illegally, had an unwelcome surprise waiting for her when she attended a pretrial hearing on a felony charge at a courthouse in Brooklyn this month. As she stepped out of the courtroom into a public hallway, she was approached by immigration agents seeking to deport her.
As her husband, her social worker and one of her lawyers looked on aghast, the agents hauled her away.
The encounter was only the most recent in a long series of such cases across the country that immigrant advocates and politicians say have spread fear of courthouses among immigrants and eroded their willingness to participate in the judicial system, with profound civil rights implications. “If they feel like the court is not a safe place where they can go, they may not show up to court,” said Nyasa Hickey, Ms. Socope’s immigration lawyer.
For years, even as the number of deportations has climbed to record levels, immigration agents have generally refrained from questioning or detaining immigrants in and around locations deemed “sensitive,” including schools, houses of worship, hospitals and public demonstrations.
Now a growing lobby of immigrants’ advocates and politicians is seeking to add courthouses to that list.
Advocates argue that the use of courthouses by immigration officials deters undocumented immigrants from exercising their constitutional rights of due process; petitioning for redress of grievances, such as wage claims against employers; and satisfying their civic duties, such as paying traffic tickets.
Joanne Lin, a legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington, said she had heard about dozens of cases since the beginning of 2013 in which immigrants have been interrogated or detained at courthouses, including while trying to attend hearings, get married or obtain a domestic violence restraining order.
“I have no doubt that this is just the tip of the iceberg,” Ms. Lin said. “Courthouses need to be open, accessible and safe to all community members, regardless of immigration status.”
In 2011, John Morton, then the top official at Immigration and Customs and Enforcement, an arm of Homeland Security commonly known as ICE, issued a memorandum that reaffirmed the agency’s list of “sensitive locations” where enforcement actions were discouraged except under extraordinary circumstances, such as cases involving dangerous felons.
In March, top officials at the agency updated their guidance for field agents conducting enforcement actions at or near courthouses, Virginia Kice, an agency spokeswoman, said. Agency officials declined to publicly discuss the contents of the new courthouse guidance, saying it was confidential. But officials did not modify the 2011 memo to extend its protections to courthouses.
Ms. Lin said that in a private meeting in March with several top officials from the agency, they told her that under the new guidelines agents would conduct enforcement actions at courthouses only against undocumented immigrants considered top priorities, including those convicted of serious crimes and people deemed a threat to public safety.
All actions would occur in nonpublic areas of the courthouse, the officials said, according to Ms. Lin. The officials also told her that courthouses were “well suited” for detentions because they were safer for the agents than confronting someone in their home where encounters were more likely to escalate into violence.
But advocates contend that despite the new guidance, immigration agents continue to use courthouses to go after immigrants who do not appear to be the agency’s utmost priority.
Ms. Socope, 30, first entered the United States in 2008 but was picked up at the border and immediately deported, Ms. Hickey said. She returned the same year and moved to New York City, where she was living with her husband in Brooklyn and worked as a house cleaner.
Last year, after an altercation with a landlord, Ms. Socope — who has never been convicted of a crime, her lawyers said — was arrested and charged with assault and criminal possession of a weapon. Her lawyers and social worker were negotiating for a plea that would include a mandate to enter an alternative-to-incarceration program where she would receive help for mental health issues and substance abuse, Ms. Hickey said.
According to current federal enforcement priorities, Ms. Socope would appear to be a tertiary priority, below groups of undocumented immigrants deemed of greater concern, including those convicted of serious crimes or considered threats to public safety. And though her lawyers acknowledge that Ms. Socope did not have immigration papers, they said that a public hallway in a courthouse was no place to detain her. (Ms. Socope has since been released under government supervision with a monitoring bracelet strapped to her ankle while Ms. Hickey tries to block her deportation.)
In an interview last week, Ms. Socope said that as she was being taken away, her initial thought was that her lawyers had somehow been involved in the detention.
“I didn’t know how it happened,” she said, as she choked back tears.
“The arrest has totally broken her trust,” Ms. Hickey said.
Advocates said they did not know how immigration agents had selected certain immigrants for enforcement in courthouses. Ms. Lin said officials may be using a combination of methods, including randomly questioning immigrants who are doing business at courthouses or cross-referencing criminal court dockets against federal immigration databases.
Some elected officials around the country have also been pressuring immigration authorities on the issue. In Wisconsin, a group of state lawmakers sent a letter to the head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement requesting that he order a halt to immigration interrogations and detentions at all Wisconsin courthouses.
A United States congresswoman from that state, Gwen Moore, a Democrat, has been soliciting signatures from her colleagues for a similar letter, which she plans to send to Jeh Johnson, the Homeland Security secretary, this week.
“By deterring people from utilizing court services, ICE is creating a culture of fear that undermines public safety and the ability of law enforcement and the state’s judicial system to carry out essential functions,” the letter reads.