United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement faces a growing number of legal challenges to its practice of conducting sting operations at courthouses and at appointments immigrants have with U.S. immigration authorities. Civil rights advocates have long argued such enforcement dissuades immigrants from cooperation with authorities, and, as such, functionally limits their ability to access the full protection of the law.
A federal judge in Maryland decided last Thursday that ICE agents acted unlawfully when they detained Wanrong Lin. Lin, a Chinese national, was arrested while meeting with immigration authorities to apply for a deportation waiver that would allow him to remain with his family in the U.S. as he underwent applications for legal residency status. The judge ruled that, in this specific case, the application proceedings could not be used as a way to trap Lin.
The judge's decision "is not a class action [and] is limited to the particular case," explains Richard Boswell, a law professor at the University of California–Hastings specializing in immigration law. "However, some of the reasoning could be influential in other cases in other courts."
While there has not yet been such a class-action challenge, Boswell says there's a "strong argument" for a broader case that would restrict immigration enforcement at immigration appointments.
Then on Monday, in a separate pending case, Massachusetts district attorneys and public defenders filed suit against ICE to block agents from enforcing at state courthouses. Judges will now decide whether the Trump administration can functionally criminalize immigrants by provoking their noncompliance with the courts. The practice of arresting immigrants at courthouses can silence the victims of violent crimes in particular, experts have told Pacific Standard, penalizing them for abiding by the law.
Experts say the two federal court cases illustrate the ways in which current enforcement practices preclude immigrants from enjoying the protections of U.S. law.
"Courthouse and [immigration] arrests engender fear and hinder immigrants from seeking forms of relief both in the immigration system and in the U.S. courthouses to which they are entitled to under state, local, and federal laws," says Karla McKanders, director of Vanderbilt University's Immigration Practice Clinic. "Immigrants—both documented and undocumented—have due process rights, access to apply for forms of relief under the law, and access to the U.S. court systems. An undocumented immigrant does not relinquish all of their rights when they enter the U.S."
In the case of ICE enforcement at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service meetings, McKanders explains that the Trump administration appears to be using such enforcement in order to drive down the number of legal applicants for immigration status. "The policy of ICE arrests at USCIS interviews is a policy that this administration is attempting to implement," she says. "The impact of this policy is the decrease in the number of applicants to USCIS for immigration relief."
Thursday's court order in Maryland counters that policy, explains Jean Reisz, a University of Southern California law professor and supervising attorney at the university's immigration clinic. It "encourages individuals to come forward and seek lawful status or other forms of relief without fear of being arrested and deported," she says.
Regarding courthouse arrests, Reisz adds, "Many non-citizens and undocumented immigrants are reluctant to attend court dates for fear for being arrested and deported, which de-stabilizes certain legal systems including criminal, employment, and family proceedings."
Courthouse no-shows can have a broad array of serious ramifications for the immigrants, depending on the nature of the complaints facing adjudication. "If a witness does not appear, a criminal case may be dismissed and defendant released," Reisz says. "A parent who fails to attend custody proceedings may lose their right to be with their children. An employer can take advantage of an immigrant who will never challenge labor violations. This [decision] seeks to protect the functioning of these systems and the rights of those within the city's jurisdiction, which include immigrants."
Reisz says that the ability of immigrants to comply with authorities at USCIS meetings and at courthouses is not only about the issues that immigrants face under the Trump administration—it is more broadly about whether the rule of law is allowed to prevail in the U.S., unhindered. And that's something that affects everyone. "ICE enforcement at USCIS meetings and courthouses encourages those at risk of deportation to evade the law out of fear. That places everyone, not just immigrants, at risk," she says. "It encourages a large population of people to live in the shadows and remain there, and it weakens the effectiveness of laws designed to help and protect communities in the U.S."
The emergent legal challenges to this particular aspect of ICE enforcement are not the first and likely not the last, regardless of whether the immigration appointment case leads to a class action suit and the pending ruling on whether ICE can enforce at courthouses.
"This is by no stretch the first time in our history that federal courts have restrained the immigration authorities in engaging in disruptive arrest tactics," Boswell says. "Some of these tactics disrupt state legal proceedings or can interfere with matters that are in the exclusive province of state government."