ICE detention

Immigration agents took a man into custody at the Clatsop County Courthouse on Thursday.

ICE agents pepper spraying people in a Clatsop County Courthouse corridor while sheriff’s deputies look on? Is this really a situation anyone should find acceptable?

The latest example of Immigration and Customs Enforcement using the courthouse as a hunting ground happened last week. The target was a defendant with Pacific County connections. He is accused of a disgusting crime — but remains innocent in the eyes of the law and was not in state custody. He attended court for a routine hearing in preparation for an eventual trial. Making certain that a trial happens ought to be important to everyone.

In light of previous ICE arrests there, family and supporters escorted the defendant as he departed. Federal agents moved in and extracted the man by deploying a chemical spray and strong-arm tactics.

A video appears to verify details of the encounter between ICE and the man’s non-violent escort. One person “was sprayed three times in the eyes and in the mouth as she informed the ICE agents they needed a signed judicial warrant to take our client, then was sprayed [less] than 3 inches away in the mouth and eyes along with our supporters,” according to a July 18 social media posting by Stephanie Serrano of Pacific County Immigrant Support.

Clatsop County Sheriff Tom Bergin was provided advance notice of the ICE interdiction on county property. In his view, those accompanying the defendant are guilty of interfering with a police officer. However, his belief apparently was not strong enough to lead to arresting anyone and thus eventually testing this legal theory with the prosecutor’s office or local judges. District Attorney Ron Brown said ICE’s local action was legal, though “not something we like to see at all.”

The optics of all this are appalling. In normal times, ICE agents involved in a brouhaha in the legally sacrosanct precincts of a county courthouse at least might face professional discipline. Nowadays, ICE rarely even pretends to be accountable to citizen oversight, and the sheriff is certain to be applauded within the echo chamber of those who believe all undocumented immigrants deserve immediate deportation.

There are excellent reasons why federal agents shouldn’t be allowed to do what they did — reasons that should be appreciated by all Americans.

Judge Paula Brownhill, the presiding judge of the Clatsop County Circuit Court, has said the practice of detaining people near the courthouse can deter court appearances and has a serious impact on the administration of justice.

“Not only criminal defendants, but civil litigants, crime victims, and witnesses may be reluctant to come to court for fear of encountering ICE,” Brownhill said after an earlier ICE intervention. “If the district attorney is unable to prove a criminal case because an essential witness fails to appear, or a domestic violence victim is unable to obtain a protective order because she is afraid to come to the courthouse, our community is less safe for everyone.”

The U.S. probably has at least 10 million residents who lack official right to be here. The vast majority of these abide by our laws in other respects and pay taxes in support of government services like law enforcement. By scaring them away from cooperation with our judicial system, ICE is fostering an underclass of millions who can be victimized by criminals without recourse, and who have little incentive to take the risk of helping root out those criminals. This degrades all our neighborhoods — not just those heavily populated by immigrants.

In this case, ICE made an example of a defendant who hardly anyone would defend from imprisonment and deportation if he is convicted. If a judge and jury find he did what he’s accused of, he should face harsh consequences. But ICE’s ham-handed detention short-circuits the defendant’s ability to clear his name, and the state’s ability to prosecute him.

It is hard to see this latest ICE arrest as anything other than a deliberate provocation and thumbing of the nose to Brownhill and other judges who have spoken out. This is a federal agency acting with a steadfast belief in its own impunity. Such an attitude ought to deeply disturb every citizen who believes in our own fundamental civil liberties, states’ rights and the rule of law.

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