Yovanny Ontiveros-Cebreros arrived at the Sacramento courthouse expecting to plead not guilty to felony drug charges and be allowed to go home. His attorney had said that was standard procedure. Instead, an immigration agent approached the 38-year-old after his arraignment and put him in handcuffs, saying he was wanted for unlawful reentry into the United States.


With the Trump administration pushing for speedier deportations and hard-line immigration enforcement, California officials have tried to ensure that state courthouses — along with schools and hospitals — remain “safe zones” so that witnesses and crime victims, among others, won’t be afraid to come forward.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials maintain that making arrests in court in some ways is preferable because it provides a secure environment, where there’s no risk their target will be armed. ICE officials place the blame for more frequent arrests being made in courthouses on the policy meant to stop that from happening: California’s landmark “sanctuary” law.

While Ontiveros-Cebreros faced serious criminal charges, his arrest last week reignited protests from immigrant advocates as well as some judges.

California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye, who has emerged as a leading critic of ICE’s courtroom presence, said in a statement Monday that the arrests were “disruptive, shortsighted, and counterproductive.… It is damaging to community safety and disrespects the state court system.”

The latest Sacramento arrest is expected to add urgency to a bill by Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens), which would prohibit federal immigration agents from entering schools, courthouses and state buildings to arrest or question people without a warrant. Retired judges, law professors and activists working with the nonprofit Legal Aid at Work have proposed a broader statewide courthouse rule to be considered by the Judicial Council of California in the fall.

The rule would block any civil arrests inside courthouses, saying they are and should be “places where anyone can come to seek help or to testify without fear.”

ICE does not statistically track arrests by location and it is unclear just how many have taken place inside courthouses. However, immigration officials argue that California’s sanctuary law aimed at protecting immigrants here illegally has already made it harder for them to arrest detainees at county jails, forcing them into places like courthouses.

Signed by Gov. Jerry Brown last year and now being challenged in court by the Trump administration, the law was part of a broader effort by majority Democrats in the state Legislature to shield more than 2.3 million immigrants living illegally in California.

It placed new limits on law enforcement agencies to prevent them from holding, questioning and arresting more, if not most, people at the request of federal immigration authorities. ICE officials now say many local law enforcement agencies refuse their requests to hold immigrants or communicate inmates’ dates of release from custody.

“ICE will continue to use all other available methods to apprehend individuals when we know their expected locations — like at courthouses,” the agency said in a statement.

But state leaders and immigrant rights groups contend that recent courthouse arrests underscore how ICE and some sheriffs — most of whom vehemently opposed the sanctuary state law — are continuing to find ways to circumvent it.

Know your legal rights? Check out the e-immigrate Directory page for legal assistance here. 

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