In Central Washington, Immigrants Fear Going To Courthouses Over Chance Of Federal Entanglement

The Grant County Courthouse in Ephrata, pictured in November 2019, where federal immigration authorities have been spotted arresting undocumented people going to court since 2017. In front of the courthouse steps, Brenda Rodriguez with the Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network takes a phone call while a volunteer hands out “Know Your Rights” pamphlets. CREDIT: Enrique Pérez de la Rosa/NWPB
The Grant County District Courthouse in Ephrata, pictured in November 2019, where federal immigration authorities have been spotted arresting undocumented people going to court since 2017. In front of the courthouse steps, Brenda Rodriguez with the Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network takes a phone call while a volunteer hands out “Know Your Rights” pamphlets. CREDIT: Enrique Pérez de la Rosa/NWPB

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Nicolas found himself driving to a bar last fall, even though he doesn’t drink. He wanted to make sure his friends didn’t drive drunk that night on icy Grant County roads in central Washington.

Nicolas isn’t his real name. We’re protecting his identity because he’s undocumented and he worries federal immigration authorities may target him for speaking to the media.

When he got to the bar, Nicolas ran into a friend’s niece smoking outside, inebriated and cold. He says she didn’t seem well. So Nicolas offered her a ride home. But before they could leave, he ran into a Quincy Police officer patrolling bars for drunk drivers. The officer was suspicious.

“He thought I was giving her alcohol,” Nicolas said in Spanish. He later found out her friend’s niece was a minor.

Supplying alcohol to a minor is a gross misdemeanor in Washington state, punishable by up to 364 days in jail and a $5,000 dollar fine. But that wasn’t on Nicolas’ mind when the officer gave him a ticket.

“He told me I had to resolve this in court,” Nicolas said. “I told him I’d go, but I told him what the situation was in the Ephrata court. He said he was sorry, but that I had to go to court.”

Nicolas was afraid of setting foot in the Grant County District Court. Members of the community, immigrant advocates and public defenders say they have spotted federal immigration officers arresting undocumented people at the court regularly.

According to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, immigration officers do make arrests in courthouses but only against targeted and dangerous people. Immigrant rights advocates contend that’s untrue, and that ICE targets anyone they suspect of being undocumented, especially Spanish speakers. 

Either way, Nicolas wasn’t keen on taking any chances.

“I thought, ‘what mess have I got myself into?”

Courthouse Arrests Explained

According to ICE, courthouse arrests are necessary because Washington state laws increasingly limit how state and local agencies cooperate with federal immigration authorities through sanctuary policies like the Keep Washington Working Act. The measure, passed in 2019, prohibits law enforcement from contracting with immigration authorities or holding detainees for deportation.

An immigration activist holds a sign outside the Kittitas County Courthouse Sept. 29, 2019, challenging Sheriff Gene Dana’s legacy as the longest-serving sheriff in Washington. Immigration rights advocates called on Dana to cancel a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement before his retirement in October. CREDIT: CREDIT: Enrique Pérez de la Rosa/NWPB

An immigration activist holds a sign outside the Kittitas County Courthouse Sept. 29, 2019, challenging Sheriff Gene Dana’s legacy as the longest-serving sheriff in Washington. Immigration rights advocates called on Dana to cancel a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement before his retirement in October. CREDIT: Enrique Pérez de la Rosa/NWPB

Despite the law’s passage, some local law enforcement officials have said publicly that they’ll keep cooperating with ICE and Customs and Border Protection. Behind closed doors, Grant County appears to have a formal agreement with CBP to share court dockets to facilitate courthouse arrests, according to a public records investigation by the University of Washington Center for Human Rights published in October.

Like other residents, immigrants are compelled to go to district courts to resolve traffic tickets or take part in criminal trials — as litigants and witnesses. They also seek justice from the court to resolve small claims or ask for protection orders against domestic abusers, for example. 

ICE says courthouses are sometimes the only place where they can expect someone they’re looking for to appear at a scheduled time. And according to ICE policy, agents are only allowed to make targeted courthouse arrests of people with criminal convictions, gang members and those deemed threats to national or public safety.

In a lawsuit against the Trump administration filed last month, the Washington State Attorney General’s office argues that’s far from the truth. They argue there is no evidence immigration officers only target criminal fugitives and cite cases where ICE and CBP officers sit inside the court and target people who speak Spanish.

RELATED: Advocates Call On Retiring Kittitas County Sheriff To Cancel ICE Contract

Washington is not the first state to push back against courthouse arrests. In November, the Oregon Supreme Court issued a rule banning civil immigration arrests near courthouses without judicial warrants. That’s after similar actions in New York and New Jersey. In Massachusetts, a federal judge has barred federal authorities from arresting people in courthouses while a lawsuit from that state is resolved.

It’s still too early to tell if Washington’s lawsuit will be successful. In the meantime, federal immigration enforcement creates a “chilling effect” around state courts that prevents people from accessing court services, according to Washington’s Attorney General.

Weeks Of Coordination

As Nicolas drove home from the bar that night with a citation in his pocket, he says he thought about the dilemma he had gotten himself into — all to help a friend’s niece. On paper, all he had to do was go to court, get assigned a court date and a lawyer and defend himself against the allegation. And he wanted to, so it wouldn’t impact his separate immigration case. But he feared that going to court could put him on ICE’s radar.

“I thought about not going,” Nicolas said.

A coworker told Nicolas about the Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network. It’s a coalition of immigrant rights advocates across the state that connects people afraid of running into ICE in state courts with volunteers willing to accompany and advocate for them.

Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network coordinator Brenda Rodriguez trains volunteers at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Yakima on courthouse accompaniment protocol. It includes how to uphold the rights of community members by verifying warrants and how to document immigration arrests. CREDIT: Enrique Pérez de la Rosa/NWPB

Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network coordinator Brenda Rodriguez trains volunteers at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Yakima on courthouse accompaniment protocol. It includes how to uphold the rights of community members by verifying warrants and how to document immigration arrests. CREDIT: Enrique Pérez de la Rosa/NWPB

WAISN started the program in fall 2018, after seeing a dramatic increase civil immigration arrests in courthouses the year before following policy changes set by the Trump administration.

It’s a service that coordinator Brenda Rodriguez says has become necessary for many, including naturalized citizens, because they fear running into ICE on their way to court.

“What used to be business as usual for people, going to the courthouse, paying their tickets or taking care of civil matters, for a lot of our immigrant community members it has now become a burden,” Rodriguez said.

Nicolas decided to reach out. On the day of his preliminary hearing, several volunteers drove from Wenatchee to meet Nicolas in a parking lot on the edge of Ephrata an hour before he was to appear before a judge. The group coordinated for weeks before his appointment —  all so Nicolas could get a date in court.

First, there was Jaime Krish, the driver. She would get everyone as close to the court entrance as possible to limit Nicolas exposure. Then there was Chris Rader, in charge of video recording immigration officers if they attempt to make an arrest.

Then there was Karina Vegavilla, the liaison for Nicolas in charge of translating and making sure Nicolas understood his rights. Advocates say ICE and CBP undermine those rights in courthouse arrests by presenting administrative warrants — signed by immigration officers — rather than warrants signed by judges.

All three said they volunteered to uphold the rights of community members like Nicolas and ensure they can access state courthouses. But for Vegavilla, it was personal.

“It matters to me. I have a son and daughter that are Latinos and that are going to be seen in a different way,” Vegavilla, an immigrant on a student visa, said. “People make assumptions about who I am, too.”

Courthouse accompaniments are not just for undocumented residents, Rodriguez said. 

“Anyone who is of darker skin is at risk at this courthouse because ICE and CBP are not presenting people with judicial warrants,” she said. “People don’t feel safe coming to this courthouse because of the color of their skin. This is why we have to coordinate. We know that this particular courthouse is not safe for community members.”

In Court

The group drove Nicolas into town. Krish dropped off everyone as close to the courthouse steps as possible. Rader and Vegavilla surrounded Nicolas on their way in, as if to smuggle him inside while other residents walked in and out. 

Nicolas and the volunteers went upstairs to a courtroom. Once past a security check, Nicolas and the volunteers sat down by others waiting to go before the judge. Everyone else seemed to be there alone.

The judge entered the preliminary hearing, sat, and reminded everyone in the room of their rights. 

“If you’re not a citizen of the United States, a guilty finding may result in negative immigration consequences. You’re advised to speak to an immigration attorney if that applies to you.” 

A translator interprets in Spanish for the entire room.

Eventually, Nicolas goes before the judge, and in about a minute is assigned a final court date and a public defender. Nicolas is dismissed, but he doesn’t leave the room. He returns to his seat with two of the volunteers while Krish, the driver, positions her car close to the courthouse steps. 

The official court translator, confused as to why Nicolas didn’t leave immediately, approaches the group. “Are you all here together?,” he asked with apparent surprise. 

The group leaves the courthouse once Krish gives the all clear.

They climb in the car and drive off, thankful ICE or CBP weren’t there that day. In retrospect, it may seem like this courthouse accompaniment and the effort it took to organize was for naught. 

But Nicolas says unlike others, he needs it to feel safe going to court.

“A ellos les da igual porque son de aqui. A nosotros no porque no somos de aqui. No podemos compararnos. Corremos el riesgo de ser deportados.”

“Others go to court with ease,” he said. “Not us. We run the risk of being deported.”

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