Courts are for justice, not bait

By Dennis Herrera
[Originally published in the Daily Journal, Apr. 22, 2017]

Courthouses are the home of justice. They are not bait.

We undermine the integrity of the law when victims, witnesses or parties to a case avoid courthouses because they fear deportation. When key players are absent, the truth suffers. That’s the case whether we’re talking about victims of unfair labor practices, a parent seeking custody of a child, or a witness to a crime.

California Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye recognized this in her March 16, 2017 letter to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, in which she respectfully requesting that federal agents refrain from immigration enforcement at California courthouses. The chief justice noted that immigration enforcement policies that deter witnesses or crime victims from going to court compromise the courts’ core value of fairness.

Already in Trump’s America we’ve seen swift and disturbing signs that people are afraid to interact with law enforcement and the judicial system.

Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck recently disclosed that reports of sexual assault made by Latino residents have plummeted by 25 percent since the start of the year, fueled by concerns that notifying police or testifying in court could lead to deportation. Similar decreases were not seen in crime reporting by other ethnic groups.

In Denver, where a video documented plain-clothes immigration agents staking out a courthouse, City Attorney Kristin Bronson said that four domestic-violence victims informed her office that they no longer wished to pursue charges against their abusers because the victims feared deportation. Criminals that could have faced justice for their actions may now remain free and a risk to public safety.

Yet in their March 29, 2017 joint response to California’s chief justice, Sessions and Kelly demonstrated their failure to comprehend the importance of public trust in our state court system and local government to ensure public safety. Instead, they inaccurately claim local statutes force federal agents to arrest undocumented immigrants in public spaces like courthouses.

The attorney general is wrong on the facts. It’s false to say local policies force Immigration and Customs Enforcement to arrest people in public places rather than in jails. The federal government has the fingerprints of everyone housed at a San Francisco jail. If they want to arrest someone, all they need to do is get a criminal warrant or a court order. It’s that simple.

It’s also troubling that our nation’s top law enforcement officer is so dismissive of the Constitution, urging San Francisco and cities and counties across this country hold people in jail beyond their legal release date.  

The people of San Francisco aren’t going to shred constitutional due process protections on behalf of Sessions, regardless of his title.

The attorney general is also wrong when he demonizes immigrants and contends that sanctuary policies make communities less safe. In fact, research makes clear that the opposite is true. Immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than native-born residents, and sanctuary jurisdictions have less crime, lower unemployment and fewer people in poverty.  That’s why more than 600 cities and counties across the country have them.

Cities and counties are able to build trust with their communities by drawing clear lines between the role of the federal government and the role of local government.

Immigration enforcement is the federal government’s job. They can and should do it, including enforcing secure borders.  Unfortunately, the immigration system in this country has been broken for decades. That’s the result of ideological stubbornness, fearmongering and an unwillingness to compromise in Washington D.C.

Public safety is local government’s job.  As cities and counties, we have to deal with the reality on the ground. That reality is that there are millions of hard-working, undocumented residents in this country who have been here for years. They have built businesses and lives for their families. They are our neighbors, our co-workers, our children’s classmates.

If they need a restraining order but fear going to court to apply for one, innocent people can suffer. If they won’t provide testimony about their employer cheating them on their wages and hours, other workers are victimized. If they’re too afraid to report when they’ve been raped or robbed because they fear deportation, that leaves a criminal in our midst and makes everyone less safe.  Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happens when the federal government unlawfully tries to commandeer the local police force and turn it into the deportation arm of the federal government. 

We‘re all better off when everyone, regardless of how they came to this country, is willing to report being a crime victim, take their children to school and access courthouses to seek justice. 

If witnesses are afraid to come to court and testify — for any side in a case — justice is not served and everyone loses.