Contending it is the best way to get the federal government’s attention, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson said he is suing the Department of Homeland Security to make its agents stop arresting people in or near local courthouses for civil immigration violations.
Undocumented immigrants serving as witnesses in trials, seeking protection orders from a domestic abuser or even paying a traffic ticket or renewing their car tabs have been arrested by immigration or border patrol agents in at least 20 Washington counties, Ferguson said.
Along with King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg and Thurston County Prosecutor Jon Tunheim, Ferguson announced a lawsuit Tuesday against the department, which is in charge of immigration enforcement. They said requests of the department to respect local courthouses have been unsuccessful.
“I wouldn’t file a lawsuit if I thought there was a better way to resolve it,” Ferguson said. “What is going on is outrageous.”
In one recent incident in Olympia, Tunheim said a person who came in on a local judge’s order for proceedings connected to his local case was arrested in the parking lot after leaving court in what he described as “similar to a kidnapping in a spy movie.”
“People should feel safe coming to a courthouse,” Tunheim said.
The lawsuit claims the department, along with its agencies Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Patrol, are “co-opting Washington state courts to carry out federal civil immigration arrests.”
Colleen Melody, Ferguson’s civil rights division chief, said courthouse arrests of undocumented immigrants were extremely rare before 2017, when President Donald Trump issued an executive order that changed policies and “greenlighted” the practice of courthouse arrests.
The federal government has claimed they only make such arrests for people considered national security risks, said Ferguson, whose office has won 24 legal battles with the Trump administration. If they can prove that, “I’ll drop the lawsuit,” he said.
The Homeland Security Department did not immediately respond to a request for a comment about the lawsuit. But a letter last month from U.S. Attorney General William Barr and Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf to state Supreme Court Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst suggests there’s not much room for negotiation over the arrests.
ICE and CBP officers are not subject to state rules that would restrict them from making arrests on property open to the public or law enforcement officers, they wrote in the Nov. 21 letter. The supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution says such rules cannot keep federal officers from enforcing laws passed by Congress, they said.
State laws and court rules that restrict agents from making arrests around courthouses endanger local communities, they added.
“We thus urge you to reconsider these misguided rules,” the letter concludes.
While Ferguson and others at the announcement said the practice was widespread, Spokane County Prosecuting Attorney Larry Haskell said he knew of no such problems at the Spokane courthouse.
“We have had little to nothing to do with ICE,” said Haskell, adding state law restricts what local law enforcement can do to assist federal immigration agents.
“I just haven’t seen that going on in Spokane County,” he said about possible arrests in or around the courthouse. “I would think I would hear about it.”
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