Tensions Mount Between DHS and “Sanctuary Cities”

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has rejected a request by California’s Chief Justice that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers be instructed to stop arresting undocumented immigrants at courthouses. Per a joint letter written by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly, cities and states that have so-called “sanctuary” policies – that is, policies that limit cooperation between city or state officials and federal immigration agents – are a driving factor as to why arrests at courthouses are necessary.

ICE Arrests in Courthouses

In recent months, there have been numerous reports of ICE officers arresting undocumented immigrants who appear in court for unrelated issues. One such arrest that made national headlines in February 2017 involved an undocumented immigrant who appeared in court in El Paso, Texas to request a protective order against her abusive ex-boyfriend. ICE learned that she would be at the court for this appearance, and used this opportunity to arrest her, immediately after the protective order was granted. This was followed by a city attorney in Denver, Colorado who stated that her office was forced to cease prosecuting a number of domestic violence cases because the victims were undocumented immigrants, and thus fearful of being arrested during their respective court appearances.

In the wake of these incidences, California Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye wrote a letter to Mr. Sessions and Mr. Kelly, expressing concern that “immigration agents appear to be stalking undocumented immigrants in our courthouses to make arrests.” The judge argued that ICE officers should not use courts as “bait” for undocumented immigrants, and that these arrests undermine the public’s trust and confidence in the judiciary, and serve to undermine the efforts of local law enforcement.

ICE Defends Courthouse Arrests

ICE has defended the arrests in courthouses on several fronts. First, ICE notes that while agency protocol discourages enforcement actions from being taken in ‘sensitive locations,’ including schools, places of worship, and hospitals, courthouses are not classified as sensitive locales. Second, in the joint-letter, Mr. Sessions and Mr. Kelly note that courthouse visitors are typically screened for weapons, this reduces the risk of an armed conflict between the arresting officer and the undocumented immigrant. Finally, the letter states that, because cities and states with sanctuary policies refuse to allow ICE to take into custody undocumented immigrants who are in state or local prisons, ICE officers are left with no choice but to arrest them in public places, such as courthouses.


On March 29, 2017, the governor of Vermont, Phil Scott, signed a bill into law that serves to limit that state’s role in enforcing U.S. immigration law. Meanwhile, the Trump Administration sent an eMail on April 3rd, calling sanctuary cities “an assault on the rule of law.” So, it seems clear that concerns related to courthouse arrests and tensions between the federal government and the cities and states that enact sanctuary policies are likely to continue for the foreseeable future.


Copyright © 2017, MURTHY LAW FIRM. All Rights Reserved

Disclaimer: The information provided here is of a general nature and may not apply to any specific or particular circumstance. It is not to be construed as legal advice nor presumed indefinitely up to date.