McKeon measure takes stance against ICE arrests at courthouses

TRENTON, NJ — On Thursday, June 15, the Assembly Judiciary Committee approved a measure, AR-268, sponsored by Chairman John McKeon, opposing the dramatic increase in arrests on courthouse premises across the country by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

The legislation was prompted by a hearing that McKeon’s committee held last week on the recent ICE arrests at New Jersey courthouses, which included testimony from attorneys representing immigrants’ rights, and representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union, the NJ Coalition Against Sexual Assault and the NJ Coalition to End Domestic Violence. Witnesses testified to a heightened increase in ICE arrests across the country over the past five months, including numerous incidents of arrests in criminal, civil, family and municipal courts.

“Witnesses we heard from provided numerous examples of situations in New Jersey where immigrants have avoided the court system out of fear of arrest,” McKeon, who represents parts of Essex and Morris counties, said in a press release. “These incidents undermine the criminal justice system and do little to protect public safety, instead instilling fear in people at a time when they need law enforcement the most.”

McKeon noted that there have been at least six ICE arrests in New Jersey courthouses and several arrests in municipal court, including an immigrant who was eligible for a special visa because he had assisted law enforcement in solving a crime, but instead was arrested in municipal court when he appeared there on a minor offense.

In response to the arrests in New Jersey, State Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner wrote a letter in April to Secretary of Homeland Security John F. Kelly urging that courthouses be added to the list of “sensitive locations” where ICE policy typically prohibits arrests from being made, such as schools, hospitals, houses of worship and sites of public demonstrations. However, according to reports, arrests in New Jersey courthouses have continued to take place following the Chief Justice’s letter.

“I applaud our chief justice for taking a stance on this issue and I hope other states will join us in opposing this dangerous federal policy shift,” McKeon said. “When immigrants are reluctant to enter a courthouse because they fear arrest, the consequences for the justice system are significant. This lack of accountability creates an atmosphere of lawlessness and fosters an environment where it’s much easier to prey on immigrants, making us all less safe.”

The New York Times reported in April that since the presidential election in November, there has been a sharp downturn in reports of sexual assault and domestic violence among Latinos throughout the country, which many experts have attributed to fears of deportation. For example, in Houston, Texas, the number of Latinos reporting rapes has fallen by more than 40 percent from the same period last year.

Other notable incidents around the country included an immigrant in El Paso, Texas, who was arrested in February 2017, moments after she was granted a restraining order against her abusive ex-boyfriend; and an immigrant in Oakland County, Mich., who was arrested in March when he went to family court to seek custody of his three children who lived with his ex-wife and her abusive boyfriend after ICE agents had apparently been alerted by the ex-wife.

The measure now heads to the full Assembly for consideration. Upon the approval of the full house, copies of the resolution will be filed with the secretary of state and transmitted to the secretary of Homeland Security, the president of the United States, the majority and minority leaders of Congress, and each member of New Jersey’s congressional delegation.