ICE to continue arrests at county courthouse
More than any other day of the week, Mondays feature the most criminal defendants walking in and out of the Washington County Courthouse in Hillsboro.
Mondays are "volume docket" days, when criminal defendants, their lawyers and interpreters show up for pretrial hearings and case management conferences.
In 2016, Washington County was one of the top three judicial districts in Oregon where requests for Spanish interpreters were made, topped only by Multnomah and Marion counties.
Earlier this spring, the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon noticed another pattern on Mondays at that same courthouse. That was the day when they received the most calls from members of the community reporting Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents were making courthouse arrests.
"In February, March and April we saw (these) arrests in Multnomah County courthouses somewhat sporadically," said Mat dos Santos, the legal director of ACLU of Oregon. "There would be an arrest, then nothing, then another arrest — but no clear pattern. It was very clear in Washington County that ICE was coming every Monday to make arrests."
It's not uncommon for ICE agents to appear at county courthouses to make such arrests. But since the courthouse visits began, ICE presence in Washington County was noticeable on Mondays and every other day of the week for county employees who say their frequent interactions with law enforcement have soured because of uninvited visits by ICE.
"It's strange for someone that's worked in and around justice systems for my career to have a particular part of law enforcement be a concern," said Richard Moellmer, the trial court administrator in Washington County. "My instinct before all this happened would always be to work in an appropriate way with law enforcement."
The chief justice of the Oregon Supreme Court requested that immigration agents stop making arrests at county courthouses, but ICE said no.
An ICE official said courthouse arrests are "the safest and most appropriate option for ICE to pursue" —- specifically because visitors to county courthouses are screened for weapons and contraband before entering.
ICE said it generally asks for help from local law enforcement in making these arrests. But Oregon's sanctuary status prohibits the use of state and local resources to enforce federal immigration law if a person's only crime is being in the country illegally.
"Across the country, some jurisdictions have enacted such statutes and ordinances designed to specifically prohibit or hinder ICE from facilitating such custodial transfers and to shield criminal aliens from detection," said ICE Acting Director Thomas D. Homan in a letter to Oregon's chief justice.
"As a result, ICE has been required to more frequently locate and arrest these aliens in public places, rather than in secure jail facilities," he added. "Conducting enforcement operations at courthouses helps to mitigate any of these risks."
The ACLU of Oregon began posting legal observers at the Washington County Courthouse after it noticed the regular Monday calls about ICE.
On Monday, Sept. 18, a legal observer captured footage of plain clothes ICE agents questioning a Latino man who they mistook for someone else. The man turned out to be both a county employee and a U.S. citizen.
"One of the difficulties for us is that this is a political issue and something that people feel very strongly about," said Phil Lemman, the media relations manager with the Oregon Judicial Department. "It's very much an access to justice issue and not so much a political issue for the courts."
Since the incident, Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici, Senator Ron Wyden and Washington County Sheriff Pat Garrett have called on ICE to investigate the incident.
In his April letter to ICE, Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas A. Balmer told U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and then-Secretary of Homeland Security John F. Kelly that encounters with federal agents were increasingly discouraging people from showing up to scheduled hearings.
"The State of Oregon needs to encourage, not discourage, court appearances by parties and witnesses, regardless of their immigration status," Balmer wrote.
ICE responded Aug. 2, denying Balmer's request to cease courthouse arrests.
"An arrest within a courthouse — an environment where visitors are typically screened upon entry for weapons and other contraband — may be the safest and most appropriate option for ICE to pursue," Homan wrote. "For these reasons, ICE will continue conducting targeted enforcement actions at courthouses."
It's created a confusing scenario for state court employees.
Lemman with the Oregon Judicial Department said court employees sometimes receive calls from people identifying as simply with "DHS."
In Oregon, now, DHS could mean the state's Department of Human Services — but it could also mean an ICE agent identifying themselves with their overarching agency, the Department of Homeland Security.
Moellmer said court employees regularly interact with 11 different law enforcement agencies "all day, every day" at the courthouse. ICE is now No. 12.
"There's an awareness that we have another level of law enforcement that I never saw or interacted with before," he said.
Ericka Cruz Guevarra is a breaking news/general assignment reporter at Oregon Public Broadcasting, a news partner of the Hillsboro Tribune.