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Immigration agents stop roundups at Kern County courthouses

Immigration authorities will no longer use Bakersfield-area courthouses to round up immigrants in the country illegally, a high-ranking federal official wrote earlier this month in a letter to the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

The ACLU had complained that immigrants who went to Kern County courthouses to pay fines or get married were targeted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.

In an October letter to ICE, the ACLU described the case of Hector Esquivel Chavez, who showed up at a Bakersfield courthouse in September to pay a ticket for driving without a license. After producing a Mexican consular document to an ICE agent as identification, Esquivel Chavez, 19, was arrested and deported.

Another man, Sergio Villatoro, was one of several Latino immigrants waiting to pay traffic tickets who were rounded up by ICE in January 2013, the letter said. The arrests created a "culture of fear" for immigrants trying to take care of court obligations, obtain restraining orders or get married, ACLU staff attorney Michael Kaufman wrote in the letter.

The letter cited ICE's policy of generally refraining from arrests at "sensitive locations" such as schools, hospitals, churches, funerals and weddings.

Kaufman said Thursday that the immigrants were "low hanging fruit" for ICE.

"They would show up to the courthouse, and if someone looked Spanish-speaking, they would pick them up," Kaufman said of ICE agents.

Such roundups have not occurred in Los Angeles or Orange counties, but the ACLU has received reports of incidents in Santa Clara as well as Nebraska, Wisconsin and Washington state, Kaufman said.

ICE "has decided to refrain from taking enforcement actions" at the Kern County courthouses, "except in exigent circumstances," Thomas Homan, executive associate director of enforcement and removal operations for ICE, said in a Jan. 10 letter to Kaufman.

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Twitter: @cindychangLA

cindy.chang@latimes.com

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