Immigration advocates plan courthouse protest of ICE activity

Immigrant advocates who say Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents have been detaining people at state courthouses more frequently, with assistance from judicial marshals, plan to protest Wednesday morning outside the Meriden Judicial District courthouse.

"ICE has increasingly been arresting immigrants at courts throughout the State of Connecticut, whether it's criminal court, family court or divorce court," said Vanessa Suarez of the Connecticut Bail Fund. "They are being targeted there and are especially vulnerable. When ICE shows up, they're never in uniform and they never identify themselves as ICE until after the matter. Folks who are walking into the courthouse are completely oblivious and not expecting to be detained."

Members of the Connecticut Bail Fund, whose mission is to "abolish mass criminalization, incarceration, and deportation" are organizing Wednesday's rally, along with the Connecticut Immigration Rights Alliance, church members, local and state politicians and relatives of people who have been detained by ICE officials at state courthouses.

The protesters say state judicial marshals who check to see whether other law enforcement agencies, including ICE, have "detainers" on prisoners before releasing them from courthouses have been holding some people for ICE for hours after the persons' court cases have been resolved and they should be free to go.

The immigrant advocates would like to see the Judicial Branch stop cooperating with ICE altogether and to restrict the federal agents' access to state courthouses.

"ICE has been using courthouses not just in Connecticut, but throughout the nation, as their new playing field, as their new way of doing business," Suarez said. Her group regularly accompanies immigrants to court appearances for support, she said.

A regional spokesman for ICE had a voice mailbox that was full Tuesday and did not respond to an email.

Judicial Branch officials say marshals have been following state law, and have implemented a central decision-making process when it comes to deciding whether or not to hold people for ICE.

Marshals refer defendants with immigration detainers to the Director of Marshal Services or a deputy for a decision, according to Melissa A. Farley, executive director of external affairs for the Judicial Branch. The branch also has made it "perfectly clear" to marshals that it isn't their role or function to point out people to ICE officials, Farley said.

Two new public acts that take effect on Oct. 1 will further reduce the conditions under which judicial marshals and other law enforcement authorities will be authorized to hold people for immigration officials. Passed during the most recent legislative session, Public Acts 19-20 and 19-23, both of which are amendments to the Trust Act of 2013, limit law enforcement authorities to holding somebody for ICE only if they have a court order signed by a state or federal judge, excluding immigration judges, or if the person has been convicted of a serious felony or is identified as a match in the Federal Terrorist Screening Database.

State law enforcement authorities previously could hold for ICE somebody with pending criminal charges who had not posted bond; people who had outstanding arrest warrants; known gang members and people designated as members of "Security Risk Groups" by the Department of Correction and people who had final deportation or removal orders.

In New London, ICE officials last month detained a Brazilian national leaving the GA10 courthouse on Broad Street after the man, who had no criminal record, was granted a diversionary program for his involvement in a domestic dispute. City police who were in the area helped the immigration agents capture the man as he attempted to flee.

On Aug. 6, attorney Marcy Levine said she witnessed two ICE agents pick up a Guatemalan national who appeared at GA10 to answer the charge of failing to have insurance. The agents were standing directly outside of the courthouse wearing street clothes, Levine said.

While witnesses say the ICE agents have not been taking people into custody inside the Broad Street courthouse, attorney Elisa L. Villa, a supervisor in the public defender's office at the Bristol courthouse, said ICE "grabbed" one of her office's clients right out of the lobby recently.

"The people they are grabbing are generally not what you call high-value criminals," Villa said. "They're just regular folks. They might have a motor vehicle charge."

The state Division of Public Defenders has contracted with a Wethersfield immigration attorney, Anthony Collins, to handle immigration questions, Villa said. Collins could not immediately be reached for comment.

In 2017, then state Supreme Court Justice Chase T. Rogers wrote to then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to request that ICE agents stop taking people into custody in public areas of state courthouses and asked that the courts be designated a "sensitive location," like schools, hospitals, places of worship and public demonstrations. The request was denied.

"Things have not gotten better," Villa said. "They've stayed the same or worse. ICE coming into the courthouse has this big chilling effect on not only the defendants coming to court, but witnesses and complainants. They're afraid to be there because of the presence of ICE."

k.florin@theday.com

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