Protesters want immigration officials out of state courts
New London — Heeding the call of former Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio, about 25 people turned out at the Broad Street courthouse Thursday morning to protest immigration agents coming into state courthouses to apprehend undocumented immigrants.
The protesters carried signs and lined the walkway leading into the Geographical Area 10 courthouse for about an hour before court opened. Finizio, a practicing attorney who had two cases on the docket, said that when fellow attorneys told him that Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agents sometimes operate at the courthouse, it concerned him greatly.
"We have parents separated from their children by the federal authorities (in Texas)," he said. "That could happen in New London."
Retired Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers wrote to federal immigration authorities last year to request that ICE stop taking people into custody in public areas of state courthouses but the practice continues.
"Nothing has really changed," said O'Donovan Murphy, director of judicial marshal services for the State of Connecticut. "ICE still, when they deem necessary, will come to a courthouse and make an arrest, and we don't do anything to assist or prohibit them from doing that."
If federal authorities have what is known as an immigration detainer on someone who is going to be released from state custody, the person is screened by marshals at the Judicial Branch's administrative office to see if they meet certain criteria. Generally, Murphy said, the state releases people to ICE if they are serious felons, wanted by another jurisdiction or have a final order of deportation from a federal magistrate. If the person doesn't meet the criteria, the marshal's office notifies ICE that the person is going to be released into the community.
In 2017 in Connecticut, judicial marshals turned over 51 individuals to ICE, according to Murphy, and since January, 27 people have been released to ICE. He said much of the enforcement activity has taken place in Fairfield County, where there are larger communities of undocumented immigrants.
The Trump administration on Wednesday halted its enforcement of the zero-tolerance policy that landed 2,300 children of migrants who crossed the border illegally in holding facilities that some likened to concentration camps. Finizio said there is no immediate plan to reunite those children with their parents, and that the parents could be held indefinitely. With that in mind, he said he took to Facebook on Wednesday night to plan a peaceful protest.
When he was New London's mayor, Finizio had championed protection of the city's undocumented immigrants, issuing an executive order on his first day in office in December 2011 mandating police not inquire into someone's immigration status or take measures against a suspected undocumented immigrant or refugee unless a violation of federal immigration law was being investigated. On Monday, the City Council passed a resolution affirming the existing practices.
Standing outside the courthouse Thursday morning, Finizio pointed to a mother with a baby in her arms and said parents bring their children to court all the time, perhaps lacking the resources to hire a babysitter, and that he doesn't want to see the families of those neighbors divided.
"Many times the matters that bring people here are minor offenses," he said. "People will say, 'If it's a criminal, why do we care what happens to them?' But at the GA (lower level court), we handle all (manner) of technical cases. To assume anyone is here for a major crime is a false assumption."
Mirna Martinez, president of the New London Board of Education, joined the protest outside the courthouse Thursday. She said it was important to take a few moments to take a stand against the separation of families.
State Rep. Christine Conley, D-Groton, also a practicing attorney, joined the protest.
"It was important to make sure everyone in the community knows the courts are accessible to all," Conley said later by phone. "We have folks who have business in the courts or who are witnesses to crimes or victims of crimes and they need to be able to go to the courts and do their business without fear of immigration officials."
Local attorney Marcy Levine, who works with undocumented immigrants in state and federal courts, said she had a client taken by ICE officials at GA10 a couple of weeks ago. The man, who she declined to identify but said is of Hispanic origin, had gone to court for a charge of sixth-degree larceny, which is a misdemeanor charge often associated with shoplifting or petty thefts. She was able to secure bond for the man in immigration court and he was released from custody, Levine said. The next step after helping a client obtain bond is to work on their immigration status, she said.
Levine said sometimes ICE agents wait outside the state courthouses in their cars, and when her clients exit the building, the ICE agents approach them, ask them who they are and take them into custody. Sometimes, she said, the ICE agents come right into the courtroom. Her clients' charges have ranged from driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs to domestic violence and larceny and motor vehicle offenses, such as driving without a license.
Many of the clients taken into ICE custody are in their early to mid-20s and have children who are lawful residents of the United States, Levine said.
"There's a lot of family separation," she said. "The U.S. government doesn't care."
Many have fled Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador under threat of death by violent gangs, she said, and deporting those clients is like giving them a death sentence.
Last year, Levine represented Jonathan Lopez of New London, a lawful permanent resident of the U.S. who was deemed an aggravated felon after he was convicted of a felony burglary charge related to a domestic violence incident. Though he had lived in the country since he was 13, Lopez had never obtained citizenship. He left his family behind when he was deported to the Dominican Republic. He remains there, according to Levine.
"A lot of my guys do have children," Levine said. "Oftentimes the child's mother is around but then they become a single parent. And if they don't have lawful status, they are not able often to get the help they need."
Editor's Note: This version corrects the title and spelling of the first name of New London Board of Education President Mirna Martinez.