The arrest of a man in a Delano courthouse by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has raised concerns that immigrants may be discouraged from participating in the justice system, possibly threatening legal procedures.

The arrest, which occurred on the property of the Delano branch of Kern County Superior Court on July 25, appears to be the first time in months ICE agents have conducted such an activity on courthouse grounds.

In 2013, ICE arrests in Kern County courthouses generated protests and a letter of condemnation from the American Civil Liberties Union.

The action sparked similar concerns brought up years ago.

“The presence of ICE agents in the courthouse so undermines the administration of justice by their presence that it far outweighs the advantages that ICE agents are trying to accomplish by enforcing immigration laws,” said local attorney and co-founder of the Immigration Justice Collaborative H.A. Sala. “What this does is it entirely undermines the core function of the criminal justice system, which is to ensure fairness and do justice under law.”

He said witnesses could be discouraged from participating in trials, and victims of domestic violence could be put at risk if their immigration status makes it risky for them to appear at court out of fear of arrest.

ICE has defended the policy. The agency considers courthouses a safe place for making arrests because people are screened for weapons when they enter, according to a policy summary on its website.

A portion of ICE arrestees have committed crimes and are forced to leave the country following violent offenses, making arrests potentially dangerous.

According to its policy, ICE refrains from making arrests in certain “sensitive locations” like schools, hospitals and places of worship, but the agency does not consider a courthouse as sensitive.

“Courthouse arrests are often necessitated by the unwillingness of jurisdictions to cooperate with ICE in the transfer of custody of aliens from their prisons and jails,” ICE said on its website. “Further, many of the aliens ICE is targeting have taken affirmative measures to avoid detection by ICE officers.”

Kern County, however, does cooperate with ICE in the transfer of individuals who have been arrested. In 2018, ICE arrested 374 people inside Kern County jails after being notified though a national database.

By also using courthouses to conduct arrests, the entire court system was put at risk, Sala said.

He hoped to rally local attorneys and judges against the practice in an effort to keep ICE out of courthouses.

“We just found out about this hours ago so we’re trying to address it as quickly as we possibly can,” he said July 25.

He pointed to a decision by a federal judge in June, in which ICE was barred in Massachusetts from making arrests in courthouses.

District Attorneys for two Massachusetts counties had sued ICE, claiming courthouse arrests made it more difficult for them to prosecute cases.

U.S. District Court Judge Indira Talwani took their side, saying the administration of justice by the state’s DA’s suffered when litigants, witnesses and others were afraid to go to a courthouse because they feared being arrested by immigration authorities.

After the print publication of this story, ICE released the following statement to The Californian:

“Foremost, ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) enforces our nation’s immigration law by identifying, arresting, and removing aliens who present a danger to national security or are a risk to public safety, as well as those who enter the United States illegally or otherwise undermine the integrity of our immigration laws and our border control efforts," said Paul Prince, ICE Spokesman for San Francisco and Northern California.

“Let me be clear," he continued in his statement. "ICE has no choice but to conduct at-large arrests in local neighborhoods, at worksites, or outside of jails and courthouses—instead of focusing on arrests at jails and prisons where transfers are safer for ICE officers and the community—due to limited cooperation from local and state authorities. It is also inevitable that additional collateral arrests will occur. Local and state politicians, whether they will admit it or not, play a major role establishing immigration law and how it’s enforced.”

ICE also released information about the man arrested in Delano, which is provided below:

“July 25, 2019, ICE reinstated an order of removal for Armando Garcia-Mercado, a four-time immigration law violator, after his recent arrest by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deportation officers in Delano, Calif.” 

“ICE deportation officers first encountered Garcia-Mercado, June 16, 2017, upon his release from Kern County Jail following his arrest on local charges. ICE officers issued Garcia-Mercado a notice to appear in immigration court before an immigration judge. 

“Aug. 15, 2017, a San Francisco immigration judge issued an order for removal to Mexico for Garcia-Mercado. He was later removed to Mexico, Aug. 18, 2017.” 

“Garcia-Mercado illegally re-entered the United States from Mexico on three other occasions—Oct. 2, 2017 and Dec. 14, 2017 at or near Lukeville, Ariz., and Dec. 14, 2017 at an unknown location.” 

“Garcia-Mercado has one prior conviction for driving under the influence, where he was sentenced to 364 days in jail.

You can reach Sam Morgen at 661-395-7415. You may also follow him on Twitter @smorgenTBC.

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