Seeking to curb ICE courthouse arrests in Oregon, immigrant advocates push for new court rule

Leland Baxter-Neal, staff attorney with the ACLU of Oregon, and Nadia Dahab, an attorney working with Innovation Law Lab, make their case for a new court rule aimed restricting immigration arrests at courthouses around Oregon. (Jake Thomas/Salem Reporter)

SALEM  – Federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents would be restricted from making arrests in Oregon courthouses under a rule advanced by the state’s judicial system on Friday.

A coalition of civil and immigrant rights groups, including the ACLU of Oregon and Innovation Law Lab, proposed the change in response to reports of ICE making arrests in and near courthouses of individuals suspected of being in the country illegally.

Civil liberties advocates, immigration rights groups and others have criticized the arrests for making immigrant and minority communities fearful of the legal system and less likely to participate in state court proceedings, including paying fines, filing for protective orders or serving as witnesses.

The arrests have been part of President Donald Trump’s hardline approach to immigration. The rule comes on the heels of headline-making confrontations involving ICE agents in courthouses in Oregon and elsewhere.

“There is a perception in communities across the state that if they go to court for any reason, they may be arrested by ICE,” said Leland Baxter-Neal, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Oregon.

The proposal to shift how Oregon deals with immigration cases came before an obscure committee of judges and others in the state’s legal system – the state Uniform Trial Court Rules Committee. The committee recommends how the state’s court system ought to operate, with final decisions up to the state’s chief justice.

The rule would prohibit ICE agents from making civil immigration arrests without a judicial warrant or order. Unlike administrative warrants, which are issued and used by ICE, judicial warrants must be issued by a judge.

According to the ACLU, the rule is supported by a range of immigrant rights and other legal advocacy organizations. Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, and New Mexico have adopted similar rules, according to the ACLU. California recently passed a law blocking ICE arrests at courts.

Baxter said that while the ACLU has received thousands of Department of Homeland Security documents regarding ICE arrests at state courthouses in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, it’s not clear how frequently these arrests occur in Oregon. However, he said that ICE officers have executed or planned arrests in over a dozen state.

While members of the committee agreed with the need for the rule, they questioned if the rule would put Oregon on a collision course with the federal government.

“The enforceability of this, just from a nuts-and-bolts standpoint, I have a lot of questions about that,” said Deschutes County Circuit Judge Wells Ashby.

With some hesitation, the committee recommended a narrower version of the rule. They also asked that a final version of the rule clarify what enforcement mechanism judges and court administrators will have. 

The committee makes recommendations on rules for Oregon’s 36 circuit courts. Oregon Supreme Court Justice Martha Walters has the final say on which rules go into effect.

Phil Lemman, Oregon Judicial Department spokesman, said in an email that ICE arrests in courthouses have been a concern for the current chief justice and her predecessor. He said that Walters wanted the rule to be considered by the committee before deciding whether to enact it.

In an emailed statement, ICE spokeswoman Tanya Roman said that federal law gives ICE officers the authority to make arrests without a judicial warrant.

“We do not comment on pending litigation,” she said. “However, the idea that a state law can bind the hands of a federal law enforcement agency is wrong.”