The federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency’s practice of arresting people appearing at Connecticut courthouses for nonimmigration issues is raising red flags for many attorneys who deride the policy as unfair and dangerous.
The issue heated up last week when Samuel Cruz, who was in Danbury Superior Court on July 6 to be sentenced on a domestic assault charge, fled when he saw ICE agents waiting for him at the courthouse.
Cruz, who was wanted for deportation, ran from the courthouse when he saw the immigration agents. He fled into the street, where and unmarked police car struck him, according to news reports. ICE agents then arrested him.
Cruz’s whereabouts were unknown Monday, although his public defender said he believes the 25-year-old could be in a federal detention center.
“I have not talked to him. I suspect he is in ICE custody,” said Thomas Leaf, Danbury’s assistant public defender. “ICE likes to keep their dealings secret from us. … I just do not know why he was on ICE’s radar.”
Leaf said when court personnel in Danbury complained about ICE arrests in the building, immigration officials started conducting arrests right outside the court.
“My personal opinion, and not that of the office, is that it’s not a good practice,” Leaf said. “It will make people scared to go to the police, and to keep their court dates and to go to the State’s Attorney’s Office.”
Dan Barrett, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, said the ICE policy will have a chilling effect.
“Word will get around to people that you ought not to have any dealings with the courts or the police,” Barrett said. “That will mean victims and witnesses to crimes will not go near police or the courts. There will be a no-go zone. People will not want to go to court because ICE might be hanging around the parking lot.”
Attorneys say that fear could prevent migrants from reporting thefts, other crimes and injustices committed against them.
“ICE, in essence, is closing down the courts for a segment of our society,” Barrett said. “It is exceedingly worrisome.”
And that exclusion seems to be spreading in Danbury, for instance, where Barrett said the local police work closely with ICE. “That close relationship will bite them,” he said. “No one, whether family or friends, will want to voluntarily come in contact with the police who have any remote fear of ICE.”
Jamie Sullivan, managing partner at Hartford’s Howard Kohn Sprague & FitzGerald and the co-author of a book on legal ethics, called the policy “abhorrent” on Monday.
“It’s disruptive of the court proceedings,” Sullivan said. “If this were done by attorneys, it would be in violation of Rule 8.4 of the Rules of Professional Conduct. This will scare witnesses and individuals of availing themselves of the rights under the law to bring claims in court.”
Both Barrett and Sullivan said ICE can find other ways to interview or apprehend individuals, rather than going to a courthouse.
“The other ways might require more work, but they should do that so it does not negatively affect the court system,” Sullivan said.
Barrett agreed. “They should try another way to talk to these individuals,” he said. “They should try the good old-fashioned shoe leather way of doing this.”
No one from ICE’s media department responded to a request for comment Monday. The agency’s website, though, does acknowledge the practice of making arrests at courthouses.
In a question-and-answer segment, ICE addressed the issue.
“ICE, like other federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, [makes] arrests at courthouses to ensure the laws within the agency’s jurisdiction are enforced in a safe and efficient manner,” the website reads. “ICE arrests at courthouses are the result of targeted enforcement actions against specific aliens. As with all planned enforcement actions, ICE officers exercise sound judgment when enforcing federal law, and make substantial efforts to avoid unnecessarily alarming the public.”
The incident involving Cruz, ICE and an unmarked law enforcement vehicle comes as a growing list of Democrats across the country call for ICE’s disbandment. According to CNN, those calling for ICE to be eliminated include New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who won in a recent Democratic primary in New York on a platform of abolishing the agency. In Wisconsin, U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan said he’d introduce legislation that would dismantle ICE.