California wants ICE to stop arresting immigrants in courtrooms. This bill could help

ICE agents lead a suspect down the hall of Fresno County Superior Court in July. Agents have been making arrests inside the Fresno County courthouse for weeks.
ICE agents lead a suspect down the hall of Fresno County Superior Court in July. Agents have been making arrests inside the Fresno County courthouse for weeks. plopez@fresnobee.com

The threats started as far back as January, not long after Gov. Jerry Brown made California a “sanctuary state” by signing Senate Bill 54 into law.

“They’re about to see a lot more special agents,” Thomas Homan, then the acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, told Fox News. “A lot more deportation hours in the state of California.”

So, it should come as no surprise that last week, ICE agents marched into a Sacramento courtroom in the middle of an arraignment and left with an undocumented immigrant, Yovanny Ontiveros-Cebreros, in handcuffs.

It was only a matter of time before this happened. What’s surprising is that California, home of “the resistance,” was so unprepared for it — especially when ICE agents have been making arrests in the hallways of the state’s courthouses for weeks, likely destroying unrelated criminal cases by scaring away potential witnesses and victims with immigration issues.

The confusion at the state level is inexcusable.

It has been almost two years since Donald Trump was elected president on promises to deport thousands of immigrants, and almost a year since California enacted SB 54 to meet that threat by limiting the ways state and local authorities can cooperate with immigration agents.

And yet, it’s still unclear whose responsibility it is to create, much less enforce, policies on how ICE must handle courthouse arrests of people targeted for deportation.

In the vacuum, Sacramento County Superior Court Presiding Judge David De Alba has stepped up. On Monday, he vowed to work with the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, which provides security for the courts, and ICE “to avoid this from happening again.”

He was piggybacking on the tough talk from California’s chief justice, Tani Cantil-Sakauye, who on Monday reiterated the call she made last year for ICE to treat courthouses as “sensitive” areas. “Continuing to make immigration arrests at state courts and especially in our courtrooms is disruptive, shortsighted, and counterproductive,” she said in a statement. “It is damaging to community safety and disrespects the state court system.”

But none of that is likely to have an effect on ICE, which in a statement to The Bee, said agents will continue to “apprehend individuals when we know their expected locations – like at courthouses.”

That leaves the ball in the court of Attorney General Xavier Becerra. Under SB 54, his office is tasked with coming up with “model policies” to provide guidance to judges and court staff about how to limit assistance with immigration enforcement. However, those policies are still being drafted and aren’t due until Oct. 1.

In the meantime, sheriff’s departments can and probably will continue to do as they please, allowing deputies to let ICE agents execute arrest warrants on immigrants at courthouses. This is could even happen in Sacramento again, given Sheriff Scott Jones’ staunch opposition to California’s sanctuary policies.

Enforcement of the “model policies” will be an issue. That’s why it’s also important for the Senate to join the Assembly in passing Senate Bill 349 before the Legislature adjourns Friday.

The bill, a gut-and-amend special from Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, would clarify the power of judges to protect people from civil arrests, such as on an immigration charge, while at a courthouse. Those who violate the law would be liable for civil action by the state attorney general’s office and held in contempt of court.

Things could’ve gone differently in Sacramento County Superior Court last week if SB 349 had been in place.

Tough talk in response to threats from the Trump administration is no substitute for well-thought-out, executable public policy.