U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers are arresting undocumented immigrant witnesses and victims of crimes at courthouses across the country, effectively throwing a wrench in the criminal justice system and its ability to prosecute criminals.
This is according to state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara), who told New Times on Aug. 24 that stricter ICE enforcement since President Donald Trump's inauguration has resulted in fewer undocumented immigrants coming forward to report crimes or give witness testimony.
"There has been, as a result of the much more aggressive policies being taken by the current administration, a tremendous and greatly increased fear of these expansions of enforcement," she said. "[There's] a new set of priorities, which have moved from addressing the dangerous criminal to essentially identifying any immigrant, no matter how hardworking or responsible, or connected to the community or otherwise serving as a contributing member of our society."
ICE Western Regional Communications Director Virginia Kice said the agency does not specifically track data on arrest locations, but she did provide the numbers of arrests made by officers dating back to October 2015.
A snapshot of arrests made nationwide compared to last year show a definitive increase in undocumented immigrants apprehended by ICE.
In January 2017, ICE officers made 9,573 immigration arrests nationally, compared to 8,046 in 2016. A similar trend can be observed between January and June, with ICE making 75,045 arrests in 2017 compared to 54,683 in 2016.
Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties fall under the jurisdiction of the Los Angeles ICE field office, which also includes Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, and Ventura counties.
In that swath of California, ICE apprehended 4,237 undocumented immigrants from January through June of this year, compared to 3,707 in 2016.
The ramped-up enforcement, according to Jackson, has caused some cases to be thrown out of court due to witnesses not showing up to hearings. She also said that domestic violence and sexual assault reports had gone down in Latino communities since January. She blamed the lack of reporting on those individuals' fears of being deported.
"I've been hearing from constituents, and my colleagues are hearing from constituents, people are pulling back from engagement in schools, going to church and participating in places of worship, seeking health care from health clinics, and attending public meetings," Jackson said. "The courts are experiencing similar problems where people are not coming to court to provide testimony as witnesses to crimes, and they are less likely to report criminal behavior."
San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Public Information Officer Tony Cipolla said in an email on Aug. 25 that all questions regarding data on domestic violence and sexual assault reports would need to be handled as a public records request.
He did note, however, that no ICE arrests had been observed at county courthouses.
"We are not aware of those incidents occurring," he said.
Santa Barbara County Chief Deputy District Attorney Mag Nicola told New Times on Aug. 25 that his office had not seen or heard of instances where witnesses of crimes had avoided county courthouses because of ICE officers.
"For the specific reasons of fear of deportation, we wouldn't know because they wouldn't show up," he said. "It's not frequent, and we certainly haven't seen any increase in that activity."
Nicola added he hadn't heard of such cases occurring elsewhere.
Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office Public Information Officer Kelly Hoover said in an email on Aug. 28 that the office had not seen "any increase in ICE apprehending undocumented immigrants on courthouse grounds" in the county.
"We do not track data on when ICE takes an undocumented immigrant into custody when they are released from a court facility," she added.
Hoover said she would need more time to collect 2017's domestic violence and reported crimes data.
In a phone interview, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown confirmed Hoover's statements regarding ICE's activities.
"I don't believe that it's happened at all to my knowledge in our county," he said. "[But] there have been some instances, obviously, where it has occurred elsewhere."
Even if ICE has not increased activity at local courthouses, its presence is being felt nationwide, spurring the National Association of Women Judges to host a public event at the state Capitol on Aug. 22 between California Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye and Sen. Jackson.
At the meeting, Cantil-Sakauye said ICE officers were detaining immigrants at courthouses across the country "in full force."
"This is a national concern and deserves more attention in some respects because we are seeing people not come into court, not reporting to court, not reporting for services, not coming to testify," she said at the event.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Cantil-Sakauye pointed to contentious debate at a judicial conference in Pennsylvania attended by all 50 state chief justices, anecdotal evidence told to staff, and calls made to her office as examples.
Sen. Jackson, a former prosecutor, said she wasn't surprised that undocumented immigrants were beginning to avoid the courts and contact with law enforcement.
"I can tell you it's not hard to believe that this community would be reluctant to step forward for fear that people would be targeted for deportation because they are potentially undocumented—or have family members who are—and otherwise would be intimidated by the presence of ICE in our courtrooms," Jackson said. "I think the goal here should be to stay focused on dangerous and violent offenders who are undocumented—that has been the focus in the past and should be the focus, in my opinion." Δ
Staff Writer Spencer Cole from New Times' sister paper can be reached at.