Michigan Family Lawyers Concerned by Courthouse Arrests of Undocumented Immigrants

During both his run for the Republican nomination and the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump pledged he would curb the rise in alleged criminal behavior by so-called illegal immigrants. On January 25, just five days after taking office, President Trump made good on that promise by signing an executive order titled “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States.”

Specifically, the executive order targeted so-called “sanctuary jurisdictions.” These are states, counties, and cities that, according to the Trump administration, “willfully violate Federal law in an attempt to shield aliens from removal from the United States,” particularly those with criminal backgrounds. To counter this, the order authorized “executive departments and agencies…to employ all lawful means to enforce the immigration laws of the United States.”

Dramatic Jump in Arrests 

Since the President signed his executive order, immigration officials have conducted massive nationwide sweeps, with initial anecdotal evidence suggesting they were arresting countless undocumented immigrants. Data released by the Trump administration to mark the President’s 100th day in office proved those perceptions to be true.

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), however, that data also showed US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) authorities were “arresting thousands of immigrants with no criminal history whatsoever.” After reviewing that data, HRW found a 158 percent increase in arrests of immigrants without a criminal record. That is particularly jarring when, according to the HRW, the arrest rate for those with a criminal background only rose 18 percent – with just 6 percent of those being people with convictions for violent offenses.

A Troubling Trend: ICE Targeting Litigants in Family Law Proceedings

Along with the dramatic increase in the number of arrests, stories have also emerged of immigration authorities targeting traditional sanctuary sites in their sweeps. There have been anecdotal reports, for example, of ICE agents waiting outside churches.

Equally troubling are apparent instances where undocumented immigrants have been detained at courthouses by immigration agents. Many of these individuals were in court to file petitions seeking restraining orders in cases of domestic violence or child abuse. In El Paso, for example, a domestic violence survivor was arrested after appearing in court to request a protective order.

This has also happened in Michigan. In March, Sergio Perez-Garcia was in court seeking custody of his children because he believed they were in danger living with his estranged wife. ICE agents arrested Perez-Garcia, an undocumented immigrant, before the judge even heard his petition – meaning the court was not able to assess the welfare of his children. Perez-Garcia has since been deported, the fate of his children unknown.

Michigan Legal Community Responds to ICE Courthouse Arrests

These courthouse arrests have alarmed many in our state’s legal community, including those of us who practice family law in Michigan. ICE’s actions have very troubling implications for the safety of vulnerable children and victims of domestic violence.

There is legitimate concern that, anticipating arrest and deportation, undocumented individuals will fear showing up in court, even to seek orders to protect their own safety or that of their children. There are ramifications that extend beyond family law, as well. Criminal prosecutions may fall apart if key witnesses who happen to be undocumented fail to show up in court. It could be argued, in fact, that ICE’s courtroom arrests actually make people less safe – the exact opposite of the Trump administration’s stated objective in the President’s executive order.

In response to the Perez-Garcia arrest, the Legal Committee of the Oakland County chapter of the ACLU has written a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and ICE’s Michigan Field Office Director Rebecca Adducci expressing “strong opposition to the growing tide of immigration enforcement taking place in and around courthouses.”

Signatories to the letter include many Michigan lawyers and legal organizations, including both partners at Shelton & Deon. We would encourage others to do the same by the deadline of May 25, 2017.

Posted in Family Law.