Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson (center) speaks as King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg (left) and Thurston County Prosecuting Attorney Jon Tunheim look on during a news conference about Ferguson’s lawsuit challenging a Trump Administration practice of ICE arrests at courthouses, Tuesday in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson (center) speaks as King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg (left) and Thurston County Prosecuting Attorney Jon Tunheim look on during a news conference about Ferguson’s lawsuit challenging a Trump Administration practice of ICE arrests at courthouses, Tuesday in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

State sues to end arrests of immigrants at courthouses

The lawsuit contends the practice is unconstitutional and deters crime victims from testifying.

SEATTLE — Attorney General Bob Ferguson sued Tuesday to end the Trump administration practice of arresting people for immigration violations in and around courthouses saying it is unconstitutional and interferes with the state’s authority to run its judicial system.

Among the hundreds of people arrested by federal authorities at courthouses across the state since 2017 were an assault victim, a domestic violence survivor seeking a protection order, and a married father of U.S.-citizen children with a pending application for legal permanent residency, Ferguson said at a news conference.

“Federal immigration officials are arresting people with no criminal history at all. They are arresting people who are paying traffic tickets. They are arresting people who are crime victims,” Ferguson said. “As a result, and not surprisingly at all, individuals are refusing to participate in our justice system.”

The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle also asserts that when Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents patrol courthouse hallways and parking lots it deters noncitizens who are crime victims and witnesses from testifying and impacts administrative proceedings.

In Snohomish County, for example, a juvenile facing criminal charges was to be released and sent home pending additional proceedings, according to the suit. Instead, he wound up in a youth shelter, according to the lawsuit. His older brother, and legal guardian, feared arrest and did not appear at a court hearing where he was to prove he could support his younger sibling.

Immigrant communities “lose trust in state and local governments when courthouses are used as a trap,” state attorneys wrote in the complaint.

A similar lawsuit in Massachusetts has resulted in a preliminary court order blocking immigration agents from making civil arrests at courthouses there. Ferguson said that case provides a “road map” for the legal challenge in Washington.

Washington’s lawsuit escalates tension between state and federal authorities over immigration enforcement. Federal authorities have insisted that state and local “sanctuary” policies limiting cooperation with immigration agents endanger the public by making it harder to deport dangerous criminals.

In a statement emailed by spokeswoman Tanya Roman on Tuesday, ICE said it “will continue to carry out its mission to uphold public safety and enforce immigration law, and consider carefully whether to refer those who obstruct our lawful enforcement efforts for criminal prosecution.”

“It is ironic that elected officials want to see policies in place to keep ICE out of courthouses, while caring little for laws enacted by Congress to keep criminal aliens out of our country,” she said.

For years, federal policy regarding making courthouse arrests had agents targeting violent offenders, gang members and those suspected of being a threat to national security.

President Donald Trump rescinded most restrictions in 2017 though federal authorities insist the focus is still on apprehending criminal offenders.

“If immigration officials can demonstrate that their courthouse arrests only target dangerous criminals, I will drop this lawsuit,” Ferguson said. “But they won’t do that because they can’t. The federal government has arrested many people who are simply trying to access justice for themselves or their families. That’s illegal, it makes us all less safe, and it needs to stop.”

The lawsuit is not just about those arrested. It also discussed the policy’s chilling effect in immigrant communities in places like Snohomish County where there have been no reports of arrests.

One case, still winding through the courts, involves a non-citizen who reported an assault to the police. In the course of the case, the investigator for the defense attorney left a voice mail for the victim’s interpreter in which he said, “They will yank him and pull him back to Mexico, and he’s got a family here.”

The non-citizen was later arrested by federal officers and at that point sought to have the criminal charges dropped, the suit contends. That investigator is now facing charges of tampering with a witness.

“The way that (my client’s) immigration status was used against him to try to prevent him from participating in the criminal justice system, makes me angry,” a former Snohomish County victim advocate says in a declaration to be filed with the suit. “The fact that (my client) called me from immigration detention to say that he was detained for having participated in the criminal justice system was extremely difficult to hear.”

Actions of federal authorities have frustrated state Supreme Court justices as well.

In early 2017, Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst asked John Kelly, then the leader of the Department of Homeland Security, to rethink his agency’s approach.

“We understand that the mission of your agency is to enforce federal laws. However, we request that the manner in which these obligations and duties are carried out aligns with, and does not impede, the mission, obligations, and duties of our courts,” she wrote in a letter.

At the request of several civil liberties and immigration rights organizations, the state Supreme Court is drafting rules intended to deter federal authorities from making arrests in and around courthouses without an arrest warrant.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr, in a Nov. 21 letter to Fairhurst, wrote that no state rules will prevent federal officers from “making administrative arrests on property that is otherwise open to the public and other law enforcement officers.”

Public comments are being accepted through Feb. 3.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@herald net.com. Twitter: @dospueblos.

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