U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is using the La Plata County Courthouse in Durango as a staging ground to arrest people suspected of being in the country illegally, a practice some in the legal community say deters people from participating in the judicial system.
Officials with the 6th Judicial District Court, the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office and ICE confirmed federal agents patrol the courthouse when they suspect someone living in the country illegally is going to appear. It’s unclear to some court and law-enforcement officials how ICE receives its information that a suspect may be appearing in court, or how many people ICE has arrested at the courthouse. But they say the practice is clearly keeping people away.
“Victims of crime are more reluctant to participate in a criminal justice system if they feel they are going to be deported just by participating in showing up at the courthouse,” said District Attorney Christian Champagne.
Although the practice is controversial, the federal agency is working within its legal limits when it detains people outside or inside a courthouse.
“Absent a viable address for a residence or place of employment, a courthouse may afford the most likely opportunity to locate a target and take him or her into custody,” Carl Rusnok, a spokesman for ICE, wrote in an email to The Durango Herald.
The tactic of arresting people at the courthouse discourages people living in the country illegally – and possibly their family members, who may be here legally – from testifying as victims or witnesses to a crime, addressing a family law or traffic issue, or calling local law enforcement in the first place, several officials said.
“I do know they (ICE) are coming in and watching people; they do it on a semi-regular basis,” said 6th Judicial District Chief Judge Jeffery Wilson. “It deters people from making reports; it deters people from coming in.”
ICE arrests at courthouses are happening all over the country, a product of a Trump administration policy that orders immigration officials to target anyone violating civil provisions of immigration law, said Mark Silverstein, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union in Colorado. The previous administration provided priorities for the federal agency, he said.
The change in policy has emboldened ICE agents to pursue arresting people who appear in court, a move that Silverstein said hinders local authorities’ ability to prosecute and resolve court cases at a local level.
“ICE’s hyper-aggressive enforcement actions are chilling victims and witnesses from coming to court, and it’s leading to protests from court and prosecution officials all over the country,” Silverstein said.
The La Plata County Sheriff’s Office is concerned courthouse arrests may deter people from reporting a crime, said Sheriff Sean Smith. Sheriff’s deputies don’t often use county resources to assist with civil immigration arrests – federal immigration violations are a civil, not a criminal, violation. The practice of arresting people outside the courthouse “creates a breach of trust” between the community and local law enforcement, Smith said.
“My job is the criminal side,” Smith said. “We don’t want people to be afraid to report crimes because they’re afraid of being deported.”
Champagne said the practice of arresting people outside the courthouse has “a chilling effect on access to justice.” The District Attorney’s Office can offer special visas for victims or witnesses of crimes to allow them to stay in the county to testify, but the program is not well publicized, he said. Helping with U visas is a regular practice in the District Attorney’s Office, Champagne said.
Champagne said he understands and respects that ICE is trying to do its job, but when people don’t feel safe participating in the system of justice, they may take justice into their own hands.
“Vigilante justice is not good for our community, not good for victims of crimes,” he said.
Hans Meyer, a Denver-based immigration and criminal defense attorney, said he has clients in La Plata County who have been arrested outside the courthouse. At least 26 people were arrested by ICE from January 2016 to May 2018 in La Plata County, according to TRAC Immigration, a project that, in part, catalogs ICE arrests across the country.
“People will come to me and ask if they’re safe (going to the courthouse), and the answer is no,” Meyer said. “Because up to today’s date, the courts and the local jurisdictions that control the courts have not stepped up to pass some protection against ICE in courthouses.”
Judge Wilson said judges have the authority over what happens in their courtrooms, but the space outside is public, and anyone can access it, including ICE. Sheriff Smith said he doesn’t use La Plata County resources to support federal deportation efforts, but ICE has a contract with the La Plata County Jail to detain its suspects for up to 72 hours.
A bill introduced in the Colorado House of Representatives would prohibit state entities “from using public funds or resources to assist in the enforcement of federal civil immigration laws,” according to a summary of the proposed rule. A similar bill has been introduced in legislative sessions for the past two years.
Anne Markward, an activist who helped organize ongoing protests against ICE at the courthouse, said people seemed less afraid to go to the courthouse when there were protesters there supporting them. And although the group has been on hiatus, it plans to return to the courthouse within the next few weeks.
“Our concept is to have two-plus people there as often as we can, and that seems to have a certain effect to encourage people to show up and talk with judges,” Markward said.
ICE arrests at the courthouse are “old news,” said Enrique Orozco, a Durango activist who has been working with the immigrant community in Durango.
“The depressing part about this whole thing is ICE has expanded its presence so radically in our community,” Markward said. “It’s gotten to be much, much bigger than the courthouse.”