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By Henry A. Barrios/ The Californian
By Jose Gaspar
Kern County Superior Court Executive Officer Terry McNally is eager to dispel rumors that any court personnel is in cahoots with immigration officials by tipping them off about a person's legal status.
"It's pure speculation," said McNally, adding that he personally has looked into the matter.
"I cannot find anything that would corroborate this rumor that somehow we're providing information that leads to arrests relative to immigration status. We're not Arizona," said the court chief.
Thank goodness for that.
Just when undocumented immigrants thought it was safe to go back to take care of business at the courthouse, maybe it's not.
Last year, agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE, would lurk in the shadows or perhaps the hallways and courtrooms of the Metropolitan Division at 1215 Truxtun Ave.
When an unsuspecting undocumented person would show up to pay a traffic ticket or for a misdemeanor matter, agents from ICE would arrest the person. According to Michael Kaufman, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, this was happening with some regularity.
It happened to 39-year-old Jagmohan Singh. The native from India once worked at a convenience store and was cited on a misdemeanor charge of selling alcohol to a minor. Singh pled guilty and the judge ordered him to take a class. As Singh went to a clerk's office to register for the class, his wife waited for him at the courthouse. When he did not return, his wife went to check.
"The clerk told me, 'Your husband's been detained by ICE and he's being deported.' They already had him in handcuffs," said Mariana Singh Parmar.
Jagmohan Singh has no criminal history and has three U.S.-born children with his wife, who is also a U.S. citizen. He was granted a one-year stay of deportation but is not out of the woods yet by a long shot.
The same scenario repeated itself at least three other times over the course of the year, not just in Bakersfield but also at least once at the courthouse in Lamont.
Kaufman called one operation, on Jan. 31, 2013, particularly disturbing. ICE agents entered the court building in Lamont and blocked the exits so that no one could leave, Kaufman said.
The agents then rounded up several individuals waiting to pay their traffic tickets and arrested them for allegedly being in the country illegally. Some of those arrested were married to U.S. citizens and had U.S.-born children and no record of any serious criminal history. The ACLU documented more cases that continued through the course of the year, and is critical of the ICE courthouse roundups for several reasons.
"ICE's actions have created a culture of fear, deterring residents from exercising their constitutional right and civic duty to appear for court hearings or seek court services," said Kaufman.
In October, ACLU fired off a letter to ICE reminding the government that courts have recognized that under the First and Fifth Amendments of the Constitution, residents -- regardless of legal status -- have protected access to the courts. And cut out those courthouse roundups, it said.
Believe it or not, ICE agreed to do so.
In a response dated Jan. 10 of this year, ICE Executive Associate Director Thomas Homan wrote that ICE had reviewed its standard operating procedures for the Kern County Superior Courthouse.
"Accordingly, at this time, (ICE) has decided to refrain from taking enforcement actions at the KCSC, except in exigent circumstances," Homan said in the letter.
So all is well now, yes? Not quite.
Two recent cases have cropped up this month that might indicate ICE is up to its old ways, only in a different form. Because instead of arresting people when they go to court, it appears ICE is arresting them after they leave the courthouse.
Luciano Sandoval, 41, of Bakersfield was given a ticket by the Bakersfield Police Department for driving without a license. He went to court Feb. 3 to pay the fine and went home. Three days later, he was arrested by ICE as he was on his way to work early in the morning.
According to Sandoval, he was a passenger in a car and ICE pulled the vehicle over on Union Avenue near Fairview Road.
"They never gave us an explanation why they stopped us and I was the only one arrested. They told me I had been driving without a license," said Sandoval.
ICE placed an ankle bracelet on Sandoval, who is awaiting a deportation hearing. In less than two weeks, another similar thing happened to Rodrigo Arena of Bakersfield.
According to his wife, Arena was hesitant at first to go to court to pay a traffic ticket for driving without a license. He had heard about ICE arresting undocumented people at the courthouse. But he also feared it would be worse if he didn't go and resolve the matter.
He too, was arrested by ICE as he was leaving his home in the morning to go work in the fields, two days after going to the courthouse to pay the fine. Unlike Sandoval, Arena was quickly deported, leaving behind a wife with three small children, including an infant born with a spinal condition that will require surgery.
Kaufman accuses ICE of doing the classic "bait and switch" routine.
"They've notified Kern County residents that courthouses are a safe place, but as soon as people walk off the courthouse grounds, they become subject to ICE's arrest," said the ACLU attorney.
ICE would not comment on the Sandoval and Arena cases, nor would the federal agency say why it targeted enforcement actions at the courthouse and then why it decided to stop the practice.
In an email response, ICE Public Affairs Officer Lori K. Haley said that ICE "Prioritizes (enforcement) efforts first on individuals who present the greatest risk to public safety and border security, taking into consideration each individual's circumstances and the specific facts of each case."
ICE has a list of sensitive locations such as schools, churches, hospitals and others that are generally off-limits to immigration enforcement. But as with any general rule, there are exceptions. ICE might do well to follow the ACLU's suggestion to add courthouses to the list of sacred places not to carry out enforcement actions.
But it still leaves the question: How is ICE identifying undocumented people who show up at the courthouse? Do agents look for people who might need an interpreter? The courthouse arrests have also been reported in other states including Wisconsin, Montana, New Hampshire and in other parts of California besides Kern County. The practice also throws a suspicious shadow over other entities suspected of being in partnership with ICE.
And that really bothers McNally.
"It's just frustrating to us because it's our goal to make sure that people do appear in court and appear on a timely basis," McNally said.
-- Jose Gaspar is a reporter for "KBAK/KBFX Eyewitness News" and a contributing columnist for The Californian. These are Gaspar's opinions, not necessarily The Californian's. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.