Washington state sued the Trump administration Tuesday seeking to stop its practice of arresting people at courthouses for immigration violations, saying it interferes with the state’s authority to run its judicial system and endangers public safety.
The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle says that when Immigration and Customs Enforcement or Customs and Border Protection agents patrol courthouse hallways and parking lots it deters crime victims and witnesses from testifying and interferes with criminal prosecutions.
Among the hundreds of people recently arrested at courthouses in Washington 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, Attorney General Bob 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.”
A similar lawsuit in Massachusetts resulted in a preliminary court order blocking immigration agents from making civil arrests — a decision Ferguson described as a “roadmap” for Washington’s case. The Trump administration has appealed that order.
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.
Federal prosecutors in Massachusetts recently charged a judge there with obstructing justice by letting a defendant avoid an immigration arrest by slipping out a back door of the courthouse. 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.
The Department of Homeland Security for years restricted what types of offenders it would target for immigration arrests, directing agents to focus on those who posed a threat to public safety or national security and to lay off crime victims and witnesses. In 2014, the Department of Homeland Security said only illegal immigrants who pose a threat to public safety or national security, or who were gang members or felons, should be targeted for arrest at courthouses.
But President Donald Trump has ordered that immigration laws be fully executed “against all removable aliens.” In 2018, Homeland Security confirmed that it would make civil arrests in courthouses when necessary, and it noted that it could be safer to arrest people in courthouses because they’ve already been screened for weapons.
Since then, officials in Washington and other states have described a dramatic increase in such arrests. Ferguson’s lawsuit was accompanied by declarations from 40 people, including judges, prosecutors, lawyers, victim advocates and others who have observed the arrests and the chilling effect they have on immigrants who otherwise might agree to show up in court.
The New York and Oregon court systems have adopted rules that attempt to bar ICE from arresting immigrants inside courthouses without a judicial warrant or order. Washington is considering a similar rule.
In a letter to the supreme courts of Washington and Oregon last month, U.S. Attorney General William Barr and Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said they had no intention of honoring such policies.
“Court rules that would purport to further restrict the lawful operations of federal law enforcement officials only serve to exacerbate sanctuary laws and policies that continue to place our communities at unacceptable risk,” they wrote.
At Tuesday’s news conference, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, whose jurisdiction includes Seattle, called federal officials’ attitude arrogant.
“They think their work is more important than ours, and I’m deeply offended by that,” Satterberg said.