In the two years since Donald Trump was sworn into office, US immigration enforcement has put courthouses in its cross hairs with a sweeping new effort to detain immigrants that advocates say puts victims of domestic violence – and faith in America’s judicial system – in danger.
In courthouses across the country, advocates say US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents have been keeping an eye out for undocumented immigrants showing up for a range of hearings, including cases where immigrants are seeking restraining orders or child support.
The efforts have led to a 1,700 per cent spike in the number of immigration arrests in New York City courts alone, and raised concerns that vulnerable victims will fear an institution meant to level the playing field for families, women, and workers seeking their fair due.
“By targeting people in courts, they’re very deliberatively chilling access to justice, and very deliberately trying to intimidate immigrants,” said Lee Wang, a senior staff attorney with the Immigrant Defence Centre, which compiled a recent report noting the spike in New York arrests.
Ms Wang and attorneys representing immigrants seeking justice in American courts described to The Independent a systemic targeting of courthouses since Mr Trump became president. And, in some cases, courthouse officers with no affiliation to America’s immigration enforcement were asked by ICE agents to notify them or help in the detention of immigrants, according to documents obtained Documented New York.
“It’s really easy for them to pick up people in courts. It’s the lazy way for them to meet their quotas,” Ms Wang said.
The Trump presidency has been marked by a renewed focus on immigration enforcement, with ICE agents wielding less discretion on which immigrants they target, regardless of criminal histories. The policies of the administration led last year, for instance, to a 400 per cent spike in the number of workplace raids across the country.
In making his case for a border wall along the US-Mexico border and broader detention instructions, the president has argued that immigrants are bringing “drugs” and criminals into the country.
But, attorneys say that the targeting of courthouses is a violation of the American judicial institution, and puts vulnerable individuals at risk.
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Linda Lopez, the deputy director for the legal centre at Sanctuary for Families, said that she has encountered clients who are afraid to show up in court to fight for custody of their children from abusers, and for restraining orders.
One woman Ms Lopez worked with called her before her recent court date, she said, and requested that she meet her blocks away before a restraining order hearing so she would not be arrested by ICE agents who have reportedly been seen in courtrooms themselves in plainclothes, in the vestibules of courthouses, and outside of the buildings.
While the woman had reasonable reasons to be in court that day — the man she wanted a restraining order against had been abusive to her while in a relationship only to begin stalking her when they separated, and visiting her children’s schools — she was worried her immigration status would get her deported if she fought for their safety in court.
“There’s fear about accessing any system,” Ms Lopez said of undocumented immigrants in America. “But the fear strengthens, or is more profound, when there are mechanisms in the system to actually do what you’re afraid of.”
She added: “We’ve fought for the last 25 years to get the systems to be responsive and to now close the door on those systems, for ICE to be in those courtrooms, is really setting us back.”
A request for comment was not returned by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
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Evangeline Chan, the director at the Immigrant Law Project at Safe Horizon, said that the presence of ICE in courthouses has acted to give new power to abusers, with immigrant victims being less likely to seek help from the judicial system.
“What it has really done, is really pushed our clients back into the shadows and made them afraid to come forward and exercise their rights,” she said.
“It has empowered abusers, because they can act with impunity.”
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