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Casey Christie / The Californian

A protest with about 30 was put on by the Kern Coalition for Citizenship and the ACLU Friday afternoon on Truxtun Avenue protesting a practice ICE agents are using in local courts as places to arrest people who may be in the country illegally.

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Casey Christie / The Californian

Dr. Gonzalo Santos with the Kern Coalition for Citizenship speaks during a protest Friday with about 30 others protesting against the practice of ICE agents arresting people in courts who may be in the country illegally.

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Casey Christie / The Californian

Friday afternoon a group protests ICE agents using local courts as places to arrest people who may be in the country illegally.

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Casey Christie / The Californian

During the protest Friday put on by the Kern Coalition for Citizenship and ACLU, Rosario Hernandez, one of several speakers alks about her boyfriend and daughter's father, Hector, who was deported to Mexico.

There's nothing new about federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arresting people they suspect of being in the country illegally.

But critics say local agents have gone too far by entering Kern County courthouses to target people who are there to pay traffic tickets, obtain restraining orders or even get married.

And critics want the practice to stop.

About 30 people carrying signs saying, "No more broken families" and "Shut down ICE now" gathered in front of the federal agency's offices in downtown Bakersfield on Friday to voice their concerns.

Organized by the Kern Coalition for Citizenship, with additional support from the American Civil Liberties Union and the United Farm Workers Foundation, group organizers said ICE's practice of conducting "raids" at local courthouses sends the wrong message by targeting residents who are trying to do the right thing.

"If they can't report crimes, if they can't even pay their traffic tickets, our communities will suffer," said CSUB Professor Gonzalo Santos, one of the organizers of the demonstration.

ICE has long held that places of worship, schools and hospitals are generally considered sensitive locations that are off-limits to immigration enforcement, said ACLU of Southern California attorney Michael Kaufman. Courthouses, he said, should also be considered safe havens, except in the most extreme cases.

Last week, the ACLU sent a letter to ICE detailing several instances in which residents were targeted at courthouses in Kern County, including the detention last month of a man from India who was about to get married when ICE agents disrupted the ceremony and detained and arrested the groom.

"What their stories demonstrate," Kaufman said of the deportees and their families, "is an ICE office that is out of control."

The practice of targeting residents who are participating in social norms and availing themselves of court services could have a chilling effect, organizers argued, forcing millions to avoid contact with law enforcement and the courts. And that's bad for communities and bad for law enforcement.

ICE officials said in a statement last week that the identification and removal of criminal offenders remains ICE's highest priority. Officials said they will review the letter from the ACLU to determine whether the actions described are consistent with the federal agency's existing policy.

ICE officials said Friday the agency stands by its statement.

Kaufman said he was encouraged that the agency's statement left open the possibility that local agents may indeed have been acting outside agency guidelines.

But for Rosario Hernandez, any action ICE takes will likely have come too late. As she held her 2-year-old daughter, Violeta, Hernandez related the story of Violeta's father, 19-year-old Hector Esquivel Chavez, who last month went to court to pay a ticket for driving without a license.

Chavez, who had been living in the United States since he was a child, was deported to Mexico the same day. According to the ACLU, he has no criminal history.

Her cheeks wet with tears, Hernandez said Violeta doesn't understand why her daddy has left her.

"She calls his name and he's not there," Hernandez said.

"I want Hector to come back," Hernandez said. "He's just really important in my life and my daughter's life."