New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas has joined with public defenders, prosecutors and immigrant advocacy groups in accusing federal authorities of staking out courthouses in the state to unlawfully target and arrest immigrants suspected of civil violations.
In a complaint filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court, the attorneys and advocacy organizations allege the practice is unconstitutional and could have a “chilling” effect on the immigrant community.
The plaintiffs are asking the federal court to freeze U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s so-called courthouse arrest policy.
Since 2017, ICE has had a policy of arresting people in and near courthouses, including in hallways, parking lots, bathrooms and even within courtrooms, according to the lawsuit.
Experts on immigration enforcement say the practice appears to be steadily increasing, based on anecdotal reports. They argue the fear of being arrested and deported leads many immigrants to opt out of court cases.
The practice also could harm immigrants with legal residency status who are involved in cases that rely on witnesses who are unwilling to come forward due to deportation risks, attorneys say.
The new lawsuit argues many immigrants are too fearful to even make a court appearance to pay fines for minor violations, such as traffic tickets.
“Victims of crime should be allowed to come out of the shadows to assist prosecutors and have their cases heard without interference in the judicial process,” Balderas said in a statement Wednesday. “Federal and state law enforcement must sensibly collaborate to make our community safer.”
ICE spokeswoman Danielle Bennett did not comment on the lawsuit but provided a link to an ICE ”FAQ” site defending the practice.
“The increasing unwillingness of some jurisdictions to cooperate with ICE in the safe and orderly transfer of targeted aliens inside their prisons and jails has necessitated additional at-large arrests, and ICE felt it was appropriate to more formally codify its practices in a policy directive that its law enforcement professionals and external stakeholders can consult when needed,” the website says.
ICE argues it does not make civil immigration arrests indiscriminately. The website says the agency targets undocumented immigrants within courthouses who have criminal convictions, pose national security or public safety threats, or have violated deportation orders.
Still, the lawsuit argues the policy “undermines the administration of justice in New Mexico.”
Along with Balderas, the plaintiffs include the First Judicial District Attorney’s Office, the state Law Offices of the Public Defender, the New Mexico Faith Coalition for Immigrant Justice, Enlace Comunitario and El Centro de Igualdad y Derechos.
Maria Martinez Sanchez, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico and an attorney involved in the lawsuit, said her organization has tracked 30 to 40 arrests of undocumented immigrants who were at, en route to or leaving a courthouse in the state.
Such arrests have taken place primarily in Albuquerque, Martinez said, but also have occurred in Santa Fe and Taos.
ICE agents typically have no probable cause or warrant signed by a judge prior to making an arrest, Martinez said. “We don’t know how ICE is actually targeting people and who they’re singling out.”
Martinez said one goal of the lawsuit is to learn through the evidence-sharing process whether ICE agents are racially profiling to find suspected undocumented immigrants.
In addition to seeking an order for ICE to halt the practice, the complaint asks the court to declare the policy unconstitutional and to award court fees and attorney costs to the plaintiffs.