Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly: ICE Agents Belong in Courtrooms

Immigrants have expressed fear that the ICE agents who hang out in courtrooms are there to arrest them. Secretary Kelly said on Wednesday the agents are there to stay.

Aaron Bernstein / Reuters

The Secretary of Homeland Security couldn’t have been clearer: ICE agents have the green light to arrest undocumented immigrants in courthouses—including those there because they are victims of crime.

In a hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Tuesday, Homeland Security Sec. John Kelly told Sen. Kamala Harris that Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents can arrest anyone they like in courthouses, and that he will not allow for any exemptions for victims and witnesses.

“Are you aware that local law enforcement has a concern because this has created a chilling effect among victims and witnesses to crime that has resulted in a reluctance to show up, to actually testify about crimes committed in their community?” Harris asked.

“I have hard some number of law enforcement people say that,” Kelly replied. “But I’ve also heard the opposite.”

The presence of ICE agents in courthouses—which also happened during the Obama administration—has drawn harsh criticism from public defenders and immigrants’ rights groups. They say some undocumented immigrants, including those who would go to court to testify as witnesses in criminal cases or because they have been victims of crime, sometimes don’t go to court because they fear ICE agents will arrest them. New York City public defenders recently told The Daily Beast that many legal immigrants are also afraid of going to court because of ICE.

In some jurisdictions, advocates said they hadn’t seen a significant uptick in ICE presence since the Obama administration. But in other areas, lawyers and activists say ICE’s presence has become much more pronounced.

Harris is co-sponsoring a bill introduced this afternoon to block ICE agents from making arrests at courthouses, schools, and hospitals. The bill is unlikely to get any momentum in the Senate, given Republicans’ opposition to restrictions on immigration enforcement.

On March 16, California Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye asked ICE to stop making arrests in California courthouses in a letter to Kelly and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

“Courthouses should not be used as bait in the necessary enforcement of our country’s immigration laws,” she wrote.

On March 29, Kelly and Sessions fired back, writing that ICE agents wouldn’t have to spend as much time looking for people at courthouses if local law enforcement agencies cooperated with them more closely.

With his comments to the committee today, Kelly tripled down on that stance: When it comes to ICE arrests, courthouses aren’t off limits—and neither are victims of crime or people testifying against alleged criminals.