Defying New Jersey's Top Judge, ICE Continues Arrests Inside Courthouses

Before Trump gave ICE more discretion to arrest undocumented immigrants, attorneys say, federal agents never slipped into court to make arrests. 

Two ICE arrests prompted Rabner's initial letter. One was a March 31 incident at the Middlesex County courthouse in which an immigrant who was a victim of a crime found himself handcuffed by sheriff's officers and turned over to ICE.

Road rage

Miguel Xicotencatl-Toxqui, an undocumented immigrant, was injured in a road rage accident two years ago. When police came to his rental apartment to take a report, he was in the hospital getting treatment, while three young children were alone in his home, which was in disrepair. Xicotencatl-Toxqui was charged with endangering the welfare of a child and released pending a court hearing on March 31, his lawyer said. 

Xicotencatl-Toxqui pleaded to a lesser offense — neglect of a child, which is a noncriminal charge, according to his public defender, Lauren Bayer. He was sentenced to a year of probation, and was free to go home.

"It was at that point that the sheriff's officers indicated that there was an (ICE) warrant for him," Bayer said. "They put him in handcuffs, took him out of the courtroom, and I never saw him again."

Xicotencatl-Toxqui's girlfriend then yelled at the public defender, thinking she was complicit. "She kept screaming: 'Why why did you let this happen? Why didn't you tell us?'" Bayer said. "I tried to assure her that I, too, had no idea. But it doesn't matter in that moment — it’s optics. I think she felt I was somehow involved in this, and I certainly wasn't."

New presence in court

Bayer said ICE's new presence in the courthouse "erodes the relationship that we have with our clients." She said immigrants may fear "they can't communicate with us because we're potentially in cahoots with ICE or somehow contributing to their removal."

But was local law enforcement in cahoots with ICE? Sheriff Scott, an elected Democrat, said her officers "escorted" Xicotencatl-Toxqui to a secure area so ICE could make the arrest. She said she cannot forbid federal law enforcement agents from making an arrest inside the courthouse. "I've got to follow the guidelines," she said.

Xicotencatl-Toxqui was taken to Essex County Jail, which contracts with ICE to detain immigrants. He posted bail and is now released, pending a future court date, according to his immigration attorney, Norka Schell. ICE did not have a judicial warrant to detain him, she said. She added that Xicotencatl-Toxqui is now unlikely to call police if he's a victim of another crime. 

Also this week, Schell said she was notified about an immigrant in White Plains who was charged with driving without a license. He was free to go — until ICE came into the courtroom and arrested him. 

A spokesman for ICE, Luis Martinez, would not disclose the circumstances behind the New Jersey arrests. He instead issued a statement saying that ICE only makes arrests at courthouses "after investigating officers have exhausted other options." Martinez said many of those arrested have prior criminal convictions, but he provided no information about such convictions in these cases. Arrests at courthouses, he noted, are safer because visitors are screened for weapons.

Rabner, the chief justice, declined to comment about federal officials ignoring his request to cease these courthouse operations.

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