Students protest immigration enforcement on the Athens-Clarke County Courthouse steps in Athens, Ga., on March 8. Credit: Joshua L. Jones/Athens Banner-Herald via AP

Lora Livingston, a district judge who handles civil and family court cases in Travis County, Texas, was in her chambers on a Friday last spring when a court staffer called her to tell her that an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent was in the building.

After some confusion, the agent realized he had mistakenly gone looking for an undocumented immigrant in the civil family courthouse instead of the criminal court, which is located about 100 yards away. But by the time the family courts had resumed for the afternoon, the word about the agent’s presence had spread. No one showed up for court.

“Our Child Protective Services docket just crumbled,” Livingston said. “He wasn’t even looking for anyone in this building but his mere presence created an atmosphere of anxiety and fear and that led to the docket falling apart.”

With the Trump administration continuing to crackdown on immigrants across the country, a new survey of judges, prosecutors, law enforcement and advocates suggests immigrant victims are less willing to report crimes or go to court because they fear they’ll be deported.

More than 750 people participated in the survey from the National Immigrant Women’s Advocacy Project. It is the first to simultaneously seek out the perspectives of judges, police, prosecutors, victim advocates and attorneys, on questions related to their interactions with immigrant crime victims.

For example, the survey found that:

  • About one-third of the 108 judges and court staff surveyed said that the opposing party in a criminal, protection order or custody case was using a victim’s lack of immigration status against them more often in 2017 compared with 2016.
  • About 40 percent of the 50 prosecutors who participated in the study said that in sexual assault and domestic violence cases, immigrant victims were less likely to work with prosecutors in 2017 than in previous years.
  • About 40 percent of the 232 law enforcement officials who responded to the survey said they believe that federal immigration policies have affected their relationships with immigrant communities in 2017 compared with 2016.

Increased courthouse immigration enforcement, in particular, was an area of concern for court officials. Though immigration authorities had sometimes visited courthouses in the past, recent dramatic arrests at courthouses, in particular, have attracted widespread media attention.

While these incidents have stoked fears around deportation within immigrant communities, it’s unclear how ICE’s courthouse practices have changed under the Trump administration because it does not track where arrests are made.  

So the survey asked judges, and immigration attorneys and advocates, to report the number of cases they have handled that involved courthouse enforcement in 2016 and 2017.

According to the report:

  • The judges who responded to the survey reported an uptick in immigration enforcement in their courtrooms between 2016 to 2017, from a total of 19 cases to 28 cases.
  • The 389 immigrant advocates and attorneys who responded to the survey said their clients had been involved in a total of 51 instances of courthouse immigration enforcement, though they did not report an increase between 2016 and 2017. (Immigration enforcement at courthouses is generally considered fair game in criminal courts, and as of January 2018, ICE says it avoids areas of the court not related to processing crimes.)  
  • While the Violence Against Women Act of 2005 generally prohibits immigration enforcement at rape crisis centers and domestic violence shelters, advocates and lawyers reported an additional 87 cases of immigration enforcement that took place at these locations. (If immigration arrests are made in these places, officials need to provide proof that they did not rely upon perpetrator provided information.)
  • Advocates and lawyers said their clients had also been arrested at places the Department of Homeland Security considers “sensitive locations,” such as schools, hospitals and places of worship. There were a total of 23 incidents reported.

In January, ICE issued a memo clarifying its position on courthouse enforcement. It said that while courthouse enforcement would continue in places such as criminal courts, ICE agents have been directed to avoid making arrests in places dedicated to noncriminal matters, such as people who have gone to court seeking domestic violence restraining orders or for child custody.

Sarah Rodriguez, an ICE spokeswoman, said that the agency “will not make civil immigration arrests inside courthouses indiscriminately” and that arrests made in public places based on probable cause “is legally permissible.”

“Courthouse arrests are often necessitated by the unwillingness of jurisdictions to cooperate with ICE in the transfer of custody of aliens from their prisons and jails,” Rodriguez said in a statement. “Civil immigration enforcement actions taken inside courthouses can reduce safety risks to the public, targeted alien(s), and ICE officers and agents.”

ICE pointed out that the arrests reported in the survey are unconfirmed, and other agencies, such as Customs and Border Protection, can make immigration-related arrests.

Leslye Orloff, the lead author of the survey report and a law professor at American University, said that these incidents of immigration enforcement against immigrant crime victims at courthouses and sensitive locations could indicate that in some cases, authorities have violated federal statutes and Department of Homeland Security policies on the issue.

“Immigration officials were right in issuing its policy in 2018,” she said. “Along with federal laws, it should substantially make a difference in ending courthouse enforcement against immigrant crime victims and assuring that courthouses will once again be safe places where immigrant victims can turn to for help.”

Livingston, the judge, said that the incident in her courtroom illustrated how anxieties around immigration enforcement affect the legal system’s ability to process cases.

“We don’t want to interfere with the Department of Homeland Security’s ability to carry out their mandate, and we don’t want them to interfere with our ability to carry out our mandate,” she said. “When these important family court hearings don’t happen or deadlines are missed or postponed, it wreaks havoc for the kids and it’s difficult for us in moving forward in child’s best interest.”

Bernice Yeung can be reached at byeung@revealnews.org. Follow her on Twitter: @bmyeung.

 

Bernice Yeung is a reporter for Reveal, covering race and gender. Her work examines issues related to violence against women, labor and employment, immigration, and environmental health. Yeung was part of the national Emmy-nominated Rape in the Fields reporting team, which investigated the sexual assault of immigrant farmworkers. The project won an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award and a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting. Yeung also was the lead reporter for the national Emmy-nominated Rape on the Night Shift team, which examined sexual violence against female janitors. That work won an Investigative Reporters and Editors Award, the Society of Professional Journalists Sigma Delta Chi Award for investigative journalism, and the Third Coast/Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Competition. Those projects led to ​​her first book in 2018, “In a Day's Work: The Fight to End Sexual Violence Against America's Most Vulnerable Workers.”  

A former staff writer for SF Weekly and editor at California Lawyer magazine, Yeung has had her work appear in a variety of media outlets, including The New York Times, The Seattle Times, The Guardian and PBS FRONTLINE. She has a bachelor's degree in journalism from Northwestern University and a master's degree from Fordham University, where she studied sociology with a focus on crime and justice. She was a 2015-16 Knight-Wallace fellow at the University of Michigan, where she explored ways journalists can use social science survey methods in their reporting. Yeung is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.