A group of New Mexico prosecutors, defense attorneys and advocates filed a lawsuit in federal district court Wednesday to block Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents from arresting undocumented immigrants in and around New Mexico courthouses, saying those arrests violate federal law and impede access to justice.
The issue goes back at least to 2017, when the lawsuit says court workers began to notice more ICE agents arresting people for civil immigration offenses on courthouse grounds. Now, the New Mexico Attorney General's office, the First Judicial District Attorney, the New Mexico Public Defender’s office and several community groups are suing to stop that practice.
Cristian Aguilar, a case worker with Enlace Comunitario, spoke at a remote press conference Wednesday. She works with Latino families who’ve experienced domestic violence and described the challenges of helping undocumented families navigate the legal system. "Clients have shared with me that they are afraid to go to court to obtain orders of protection or even to attend criminal case hearings against their predators for fear of being detained by ICE," said Aguilar.
Attorneys and advocates say having ICE outside courts discourages undocumented people from seeking justice when they are victims of crimes, from coming forward as witnesses, or showing up to court for minor infractions, which then snowball into bigger legal problems.
ACLU of New Mexico attorney Maria Martinez Sanchez said district attorney and public defenders offices have flagged about 40 immigration arrests at New Mexico courts, many of them at the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court, and that there have likely been many more that went unreported.
This is one of a handful of similar legal challenges across the country. In 2019, a Massachusetts judge ordered ICE away from courthouses while the case is heard.
On Wednesday, New York lawmakers passed a bill to prohibit ICE agents from making courthouse arrests without a judicial warrant.
Since 2018, ICE's courthouse arrest policies have directed agents to avoid non-criminal courts and exempt witnesses of crimes from arrest, but advocates say their presence still has a chilling effect.
Correction, 7/22, 11 p.m.: An earlier version of this story said that since 2017 ICE officers were increasingly in and around courts to apprehend immigrants accused of crimes. In fact, the lawsuit is aimed at stopping ICE from using courthouses as venues to arrest people for violating civil, not criminal, law.