Making Justice Real

The Official Blog of the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia

Action Needed to Stop Ice Detentions at DC Courthouse

Within a week, the District’s immigrant community may finally get permanent protection against ICE detention after contact with local law enforcement. On December 15, 2020, the DC Council is scheduled to vote on the Sanctuary Values Act, which would make permanent an emergency law passed in 2019. If passed, this law could lift some of the terror our immigrant neighbors and their families have faced for many years.

The legislation under consideration is not without its flaws. Legal Aid and the ICE out of DC Coalition remain concerned about a loophole in the current version of the bill which would only protect immigrants from being detained due to contact with MPD and the DC jail–but not if a person is released at the DC courthouse. The coalition (consisting of nonprofits and faith-based organizations) has sent out a call to action urgently asking DC residents to e-mail councilmembers and say that the DC courthouse must be a safe place for immigrants.

Though local officials describe the District as a “Sanctuary” city (or a locality that declines to carry out some optional tasks requested by federal immigration authorities), it is widely acknowledged that this “Sanctuary” status stops at the courthouse door. Even though the Metropolitan Police Department may not cooperate with ICE on some matters, the federal Marshals at the DC Courthouse are charged with helping ICE detain people, typically without a warrant from a judge. Immigration detention happens based only on ICE’s suspicion a person lacks valid immigration status (such as a green card or a visa). After 2016, the Marshals’ activity surged, resulting in over 180 District residents detained at the courthouse in 2018 alone.

Based on my experience working with members of immigrant communities over the last 4 years, I have seen first-hand how devastating and life-altering being detained by ICE can be. I remember meeting with an 18 year-old District resident who was detained by ICE as a result of a marijuana arrest in late 2018. His face fell as I described the barriers to leaving immigration detention, which are much higher than those criminal defendants face. He was deported shortly after we spoke, unable to return to his previous life like US citizen teens who make a mistake and come in contact with police. Cases like this are why the ICE out of DC Coalition strongly believes individuals must be able to choose to leave criminal custody at the DC jail where ICE doesn’t have the same presence as they do at the courthouse.

People held in ICE detention experience conditions very similar to prison. And because Black people are already disproportionately criminalized, the prison-to-deportation pipeline disproportionately harms Black immigrants and their families. The consequences of detention and deportation devastated families and communities, even before the COVID-19 pandemic led to mass outbreaks in immigration detention and record numbers of deaths behind bars. DC residents detained by ICE are typically jailed in Virginia, where there has been a massive COVID-19 outbreak that became the largest in the nation over the summer and led to the recent death of one immigrant.

Please join Legal Aid in contacting your councilmember to say that the courthouse must be a safe place for immigrants in the District.

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