Philadelphia Sheriff Jewell Williams has told federal authorities that Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents now must identify themselves to deputies if they are on duty inside a Philadelphia courtroom.
His action comes after a Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News story this week detailed incidents in which ICE agents entered a city courtroom searching for an immigrant they planned to detain, arrested another man inside the Criminal Justice Center, and apprehended at least three others as they entered or left the courthouse.
“Unless [agents] identify themselves to the deputy assigned to the courtroom, we have no idea who they are or what their intent is,” Williams said in a statement. “An ICE agent may be perceived as an intruder trying to disrupt or intimidate participants in a proceeding, in which case our deputies would intervene.”
There was no immediate word on whether the Philadelphia ICE office, among the most aggressive in the nation, would comply with the sheriff’s demand. ICE officials said on Tuesday that they were reviewing the matter, and would comment as soon as possible.
Jewel’s instruction does not prevent agents from entering courtrooms or, apparently, from arresting people there. His statement said that the agents, dressed in plainclothes, can confidentially disclose their presence and intentions to the deputy in the courtroom.
Still, it marks another step in the city’s ongoing combat against ICE and against the Trump administration’s tough enforcement tactics. It also raises the tension surrounding ICE’s increasing moves into American courtrooms, actions that have provoked controversy among judges and activists across the country, including in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
Last year, Mayor Kenney announced an end to a controversial city contract that allowed ICE to access a key law-enforcement database, known as PARS, and use that information against undocumented but otherwise law-abiding immigrants in Philadelphia.
The city sued the Trump administration — and won — over its attempt to withhold about $1.5 million in federal law-enforcement grant money. In February, an appeals court largely upheld that victory, saying that in this matter, the executive branch claimed authority not granted by the Constitution and hence “literally has no power to act.”
Williams said he learned from the Inquirer and Daily News report that plainclothes agents had staked out city courtrooms to try to arrest undocumented immigrants or others wanted for immigration violations. In Philadelphia, sheriff’s deputies provide security for all courthouses, including the Criminal Justice Center, City Hall, Family Court, Traffic Court, and Philadelphia Parking Authority Court.
“Our deputies provide security for everyone in the court,” he said. “They know if police officers are present. Deputies need to know if other law enforcement officers are present.”
The story detailed how, on March 21, public defender John Lopez sought to introduce himself to a man in a Muhammad Ali T-shirt, seated in the back of Courtroom 906 in the CJC.
The man flashed a badge, identifying himself as an agent with ICE, and showed Lopez a photo. It was his client.
“Is this person here?” the agent asked.
“No,” Lopez answered, honestly. The client had not shown up to court.
The lawyer said in an interview that his client, whom he declined to identify, was due in court to face a misdemeanor charge of second-degree assault.
On Friday, March 29, ICE agents arrested an undocumented man inside the CJC, as the man prepared to face domestic-assault charges before Municipal Court Judge Karen Simmons.
Since January, at least three other people have been detained by ICE as they entered or left the CJC, the courthouse at 13th and Filbert.
ICE officials say it’s safer for agents, offenders, and the public when arrests take place in courthouses, because everyone entering the building has been screened for weapons. Courthouse arrests can be necessary in jurisdictions that refuse to cooperate with ICE and let agents enter their prisons and jails, the agency said.
That includes the sanctuary city of Philadelphia, which limits cooperation with the federal agency.
Immigration advocates and judges say ICE agents’ presence impedes the administration of justice — that fear of trouble over their immigration status can lead witnesses to violent crimes to stay away, victims of domestic violence to not testify, and children and families who need court assistance to go without.
Last year, nearly 70 former judges from 23 states wrote to ICE acting director Ronald Vitiello, saying the arrests were disrupting the criminal-justice system and needed to stop.
ICE officials say their courthouse enforcement includes actions against specific targets who have criminal convictions, are gang members or national security threats, have been ordered to be deported or were previously deported.
Immigrant advocates, however, say ICE routinely departs from its own policy, arresting people who come to court for traffic violations or to make child-support payments.
ICE officials say that, generally, witnesses in cases and family members or friends accompanying “the target alien” are not to be arrested unless they pose a threat to public safety or interfere with ICE.
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