By Crescenzo Vellucci
Vanguard Sacramento Bureau
SACRAMENTO – A story about ICE pulling someone out of a Sacramento courtroom that broke in the Davis Vanguard first – nearly a full day before traditional major daily newspapers and television – apparently has helped spur last-minute legislation at the State Capitol to protect the state’s courtrooms from extralegal intrusion by agents of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement).
An exclusive tip to the Davis Vanguard Sacramento bureau two weeks ago from Sacramento lawyers reporting that ICE agents had, after sitting quietly in a Sacramento Superior Court department, jumped up and grabbed undocumented immigrant, Yovanny Ontiveros-Cebreros, and hustled him out.
Lawyers said they were surprised by the action in Dept. 8 and that it was the first time they had seen ICE active in Superior Court here in Sacramento.
As a result, it appears legislation was approved in the final days of the legislative year designed to keep ICE agents out of state courtrooms. SB 349 – which was a kidney dialysis bill going nowhere – was gutted Aug. 29 and amended to include language that would, in effect, prevent ICE from taking undocumented immigrants out of state courthouses. It passed the both houses Aug. 31 and awaits the governor’s signature.
The measure doesn’t specifically cite ICE agents, but generally bars civil arrests in state courthouses.
SB 349, (Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens) broadens the power of courtroom officers to “prevent activities that threaten access to courthouses, including by protecting the privilege from arrest…provide that no person shall be subject to civil arrest in a courthouse while attending a court proceeding or having legal business in the courthouse, and that a violation of these provisions constitutes contempt of court.”
The bill also authorizes the state Attorney General to civilly sue someone in violation of the law, and even allow “a party in a successful action to enforce liability for a violation of this section to recover court costs and reasonable attorney’s fees.”
It does pose an interesting scenario, at least in Sacramento. Sheriff Scott Jones supports ICE and its action to recover undocumented immigrants from public facilities – the Sacramento County Supervisors recently bucked that, turning down a $3 million plus contract to end Jones’ practice of cooperating with ICE in the County Jail.
But Jones’ deputies are court officers in the Sacramento County Superior Courthouse. SB 349, if signed,, would trump – presumably – any orders from Jones.
Lara had an earlier bill, SB 183, that last year specifically did mention ICE.
This also sets up a potential conflict with the Trump Administration. ICE Deputy Director Thomas Homan has reportedly told ICE agents to conduct enforcement actions in and around courthouses, “discreetly.” But, signed SB 349 would prevent them from even doing that.
Sacramento County Superior Court Presiding Judge David De Alba has now said – before SB 349 was approved – that he will work with ICE and the Sheriff to “avoid” the taking of an undocumented immigrant from the courts.
California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye appears to back him, and the legislation, warning that the federal government to stay out of state courthouses. She calls ICE in the courtrooms “stalking.”
“I am deeply concerned about reports from some of our trial courts that immigration agents appear to be stalking undocumented immigrants in our courthouses to make arrests. Our courthouses serve as a vital forum for ensuring access to justice and protecting public safety. Courthouses should not be used as bait in the necessary enforcement of our country’s immigration laws,” she said.
The Chief Justice explained that “Our courts are the main point of contact for millions of the most vulnerable Californians in times of anxiety, stress, and crises in their lives. Crime victims, victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence, witnesses to crimes who are aiding law enforcement, limited-English speakers, unrepresented litigants, and children and families all come to our courts seeking justice and due process of law.
“As finders of fact, trial courts strive to mitigate fear to ensure fairness and protect legal rights. Our work is critical for ensuring public safety and the efficient administration of justice. I am concerned about the impact on public trust and confidence in our state court system if the public feels that our state institutions are being used to facilitate other goals and objectives, no matter how expedient they may be,” she added.
“Each layer of government – federal, state, and local – provides a portion of the fabric of our society that preserves law and order and protects the rights and freedoms of the people. The separation of powers and checks and balances at the various levels and branches of government ensure the harmonious existence of the rule of law.
“(E)nforcement policies that include stalking courthouses and arresting undocumented immigrants, the vast majority of whom pose no risk to public safety, are neither safe nor fair. They not only compromise our core value of fairness, but they undermine the judiciary’s ability to provide equal access to justice. I respectfully request that you refrain from this sort of enforcement in California’s courthouses,” she said.
Sacramento immigration activists were not surprised at ICE in the courtrooms, and said they support SB 349 and its intent.
“Although this is the first time we have heard of ICE being in the local court, it doesn’t come as a surprise. Our allies in Fresno have been alerting us to the daily presence of ICE in their courts. It’s troubling that ICE simply does not respect the legal process and is willing to jeopardize ongoing legal proceedings in their quest to steal away our neighbors and relatives,” said Ruth Ibarra, NorCal Resist organizer.
“We encourage anyone who needs to make a visit to a government office, or to a court or ICE check in to reach out to us so that we can provide someone to accompany you. We may not be able to stop ICE, but we think having allies present discourages blatant abuses like what happened in the court today. Should ICE take an action, if we are present at the least we can move our legal and activist networks into action, immediately,” said Ibarra.
Alex Gonzalez, also with NorCal Resist, said: “We also strongly encourage families, and groups in the community, to contact us to host a family preparedness plan training. We know that no one wants to think about their loved ones being kidnapped by ICE, but by planning for the worst we can act quickly should that occur.
“That means being able to make sure kids get picked up and taken to a relative or trusted family member, that your loved ones have your A-number, so we can locate you in the detention system, and we can get legal resources connected as soon as possible. While we fight for the abolition of ICE we also have to act to defend our communities and to keep families safe. This is one way we can do that.”
Chuck Pacheco, who represented the defendant in this case is one of the featured speakers at the October 27 Vanguard event.