ICE changes guidelines for agents at courthouses but won’t say how

Muddy hand prints on the border fence left by people climbing over from Mexico along the Rio Grande near McAllen, Texas.
(Larry W. Smith / EPA)

Sometime over the past couple of weeks, officials for the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement division revised guidelines for how agents are to conduct themselves in and around courthouses.

The change came on the heels of complaints by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center and immigrant rights groups that agents were targeting undocumented immigrants as they tended to unrelated court business. Unfortunately, ICE says that “due to law enforcement sensitivities, the specific details of that guidance are not being released.”

Here’s the full statement:

“As is true of all law enforcement components, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) division routinely evaluates its operational procedures to ensure its resources are being used effectively and efficiently. To that end, ICE ERO recently provided its field personnel with updated guidance related to enforcement actions at or in close proximity to courthouses. However, due to law enforcement sensitivities, the specific details of that guidance are not being released.”


An ICE official added on background that “while ERO has issued updated guidance to its field personnel regarding the execution of law enforcement actions at or near courthouses, ICE has not amended its sensitive locations memorandum, which applies to all of the agency’s enforcement components.” Those “sensitive locations” are schools, churches and the sites of weddings and funerals - all places at which agents have been told not to approach suspected undocumented immigrants.

So there is no way of knowing what the agents’ new marching orders are, other than courthouses have not been added to the sensitive locations list. It could be ICE has done the right thing and ordered agents to avoid trolling for the undocumented at courthouses, which discourages access to the courts for such crucial services as protective custody orders and more routine actions such as paying traffic fines. Staying away from courthouses also would dovetail with a directive from President Obama for the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees ICE, to find more humane ways of enforcing immigration laws even as the administration has set the record for numbers of deportations.

ICE officials reportedly are saying privately they have told agents to focus on catching undocumented immigrants with serious criminal backgrounds, and to avoid public areas of courthouses when making such detentions. That would be a sensible compromise. But, since ICE won’t share the recently revised guidelines publicly, it also could be that ICE has directed agents to step up enforcement efforts at courthouses. If so, that would be regrettable, as is the fact that the public just doesn’t know.

It would be nice to think ICE has decided to stop acting as a barrier between the people and the courts, and effectively denying them due process. But if that is the case, ICE’s refusal to make the guidelines public creates an odd situation in which ICE agents are standing down at courthouses while undocumented immigrants stay away because they are unaware that they no longer face arrest there. Lose-lose.

This is silly, and counter-productive. There are times when there are legitimate reasons to keep law-enforcement directives under wraps. This is not one of them. ICE should bow to transparency and let the public know the guidelines under which its agents are operating. And that its agents are no longer serving as a barrier to the courts.


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