ICE Arrest at Thurston County Courthouse Begs the Question: What Does Sanctuary Mean?


On June 20, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents in civilian clothing arrested a man outside the Thurston County Superior Courthouse. The man is now being held at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma.

It's the only ICE arrest that has occurred in or near the courthouse to County Manager Ramiro Chavez's knowledge, and the only such instance reported to the Washington Defender Association or the Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network since at least November 2017.

Olympia City Attorney Mark Barber said no arrests by ICE or U.S. Customs and Border Protection have, to his knowledge, ever occurred in or around the Olympia Municipal Court.

But the recent action raises concerns in a city that has declared itself a sanctuary city and a county that named itself welcoming, agreeing not to aid ICE in detaining immigrants. Was there a way for the county or city to step in? Officials say no. Not helping ICE in its work is different from obstructing ICE, they say.

What happened June 20

Details of the recent arrest are still unclear. The Olympian requested surveillance video of the incident but has yet to receive it. In the meantime, a witness account, comments from officials, and documents obtained through the court and public records requests give a preliminary idea of what happened on June 20.

The man arrested, who The Olympian is not identifying to avoid identifying his family, is 40 years old and a citizen of El Salvador. He was at the courthouse for a hearing.

Court documents show the state had charged the man with attempting to elude a pursuing police vehicle and driving under the influence in May, and he was out on bond. On June 20, the man was at the courthouse for a hearing regarding that case.

At a June 25 Thurston County Board of County Commissioners meeting, County Manager Ramiro Chavez said at least one ICE agent followed the man into the courthouse and provided identification at the building's security checkpoint. Chavez said an agent looked at the court's calendar, identified the man they were seeking, and followed the man outside after his court proceedings finished.

Then, Chavez said, agents "conducted the arrest" near the flagpole outside the courthouse.

The man's partner sent The Olympian a written statement through the lawyer representing her in the matter, Olympia lawyer Victor Minjares.

"After the hearing, (name redacted) and I were walking just outside of the courthouse back to the car when he was attacked and taken away right in front of me by men in everyday clothes," her statement reads. "I was scared. (Name redacted) had had a concussion a few months earlier, and one of the men hit him hard in the back of the head."

She wrote that the man has two children: a 16-year-old and a 10-year-old. She said they are both American citizens.

"They are so worried that they'll never see their dad again," her statement reads.

On the date of the arrest, Corrections Deputy Cory Jones sent a memo to Chief Todd Thoma that The Olympian has obtained. In the memo, Jones wrote that he responded to a radio request from security at the courthouse. A security officer, Jones wrote, told him that "Immigration was apprehending a fleeing suspect outside in the parking lot."

Jones wrote in his memo that he saw four officers in plain clothing "placing a restrained individual into the passenger side rear seat of a silver SUV."

Chavez told the Board of County Commissioners that the vehicle was unmarked.

According to court documents, the man's partner came back into the courthouse's Pretrial Office to explain her partner was arrested by ICE.

ICE spokesperson Tanya Roman provided details about the arrest in an email. The man who was arrested, she wrote, "has an extensive criminal background that includes a felony conviction in 2012 for re-entry after deportation and two convictions for driving under the influence in 2002 and 2011."

Roman confirmed that the man arrested was in ICE custody as of July 3.

How local attorneys and officials are reacting

Some locals in the legal field worry that ICE's presence at a local courthouse will discourage undocumented people from coming to court for hearings and from seeking services.

Thurston County Prosecuting Attorney John Tunheim said his office is concerned, specifically about a potential "chilling effect" on victims and witnesses.

"I think that's the general sentiment of those around the courthouse: We're really concerned about everyone having this fear (that by) coming to the courthouse, they'll somehow be apprehended by ICE," Tunheim said.

Larry Jefferson, lead attorney for the Felony Unit of Thurston County Public Defense, said public defenders at the courthouse are "really highly concerned" following the June arrest.

"We believe this interferes with the administration of justice," Jefferson said. "We're concerned if members of the immigrant community that are afraid to come to court will miss their court date and get a bench warrant -- and, furthermore, that they'll be afraid to access services." Jefferson said people might avoid simply getting car tabs, reporting domestic violence, and seeking protection orders.

In fact, the man who was arrested outside the courthouse on June 20 did miss a hearing scheduled in his pending criminal case following his arrest by ICE, and a bench warrant was issued.

Olympia attorney Lisa Seifert, who has been practicing immigration law in Olympia for 30 years, said a person detained by ICE missing a criminal hearing is commonplace, and can set a troubling cycle in motion beyond just delaying that case's resolution. An immigration judge might deny that person bond during their immigration proceedings because they could be seen as a danger or a flight risk -- even though those criminal proceedings might be dismissed.

"It's like one of those vicious cycles: You can't get out of Tacoma because you have a pending criminal matter," Seifert told The Olympian. "But you can't resolve your criminal matter because you can't get out (of ICE detention)."

Mary Fairhurst, Chief Justice of the Washington State Supreme Court, has sent two letters to the heads of federal agencies expressing concerns about immigration agents being in and around local courthouses.

"Our ability to function relies on individuals who voluntarily appear to participate and cooperate in the process of justice. When people are afraid to appear for court hearings out of fear of apprehension by immigration officials, their ability to access justice is compromised, courts cannot function efficiently, and our communities become less safe," Fairhurst wrote in a letter to then-Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection Kevin McAleenan earlier this year.

In a statement released about a week after the incident, the Thurston County Superior Court judges acknowledged the June arrest, quoted one of Chief Justice Fairhurst's letters, and stressed that the goal of the court is to "maintain a safe courthouse for everyone."

"We continue to strive to best ensure due process and access to justice for all individuals, regardless of immigration status," the statement reads.

Part of a trend

Jorge Barón, executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, said he thinks there's been a "significant increase" in arrests outside local courthouses in since mid-2018. Sara Sluszka, who works as an Immigration Project Resource Attorney at the Washington Defender Association, told The Olympian her office has documented 12 Washington counties where arrests have taken place around courthouses. She said trends have emerged.

"There's definitely a targeting of Latino community members, either based on appearance or use of Spanish language," Sluszka said.

Sluszka mentioned Grant County District Court in Ephrata as a hotspot, where at one point officers would come twice a week and arrest more than one person at a time.

Advocates and attorneys across the country share local officials' concerns about the trend.

Key findings in a May 2019 survey conducted by the Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence include that 75 percent of advocates surveyed across the country reported immigrant survivors of domestic and sexual violence "have concerns about going to court for a matter related to the abuser/offender."

On its website, ICE states the arrests seem to be happening more often because, in the past, "most individuals arrested at a courthouse would have been turned over to ICE by local authorities upon their release from a prison or jail based on an ICE detainer."

But counties like Thurston now refuse to honor those detainers in most cases.

In the case of the man arrested outside the Thurston County Superior Courthouse, ICE spokesperson Tanya Roman detailed two instances of ICE lodging a detainer against the man, one in the Lewis County Jail and one in the Thurston County Jail. The jails didn't honor the detainers, and he was released from jail in both cases.

"ICE does not make civil immigration arrests at courthouses indiscriminately," Roman wrote in her email to The Olympian. "ICE arrests at courthouses are targeted enforcement actions against specific aliens in violation of U.S. immigration law."

The limits of a 'sanctuary' jurisdiction

The arrest on June 20 happened at a courthouse that would seemingly be protected by layers of uncooperative government.

Mayor Cheryl Selby declared Olympia, where the June 20 arrest occurred, a sanctuary city in 2016.

The resolution includes pledges that the city will not ask about a resident's immigration status when providing municipal services or interact with law enforcement and will not enter any agreements to carry out federal immigration policy enforcement actions.

"By and large, Olympia's response has been, simply, one that's fairly benign," City Attorney Mark Barber told The Olympian. "We will not participate in this function that is a federal law enforcement function and a federal agency function. And we're not required to."

Barber said, like the resolution promises, the city doesn't collect the immigration status of people arrested because it's not important information for its law enforcement function.

"You can't give up something you don't have," Barber said.

The Board of County Commissioners declared Thurston County a "welcoming community to residents regardless of their immigration status" in 2016, before changing the language to "... regardless of their heritage and background" in April 2017.

The Commission also approved an ordinance in 2016 formalizing a policy that the county Sheriff's Office and jail won't hold people based solely on a detention request from ICE. The policy states the county will honor civil immigration hold requests only if the person has been convicted of a serious or violent felony.

Regarding the arrest on June 20, Lt. Tim Rudloff at the Thurston County Sheriff's Office maintains that the office did not cooperate with the ICE agents involved in the arrest or lead them to the man who was arrested.

Beyond publicly expressing concern and not agreeing to cooperate with federal agencies, it's unclear if local government can take any meaningful action when federal agents show up to make an arrest.

Barón, of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, said ICE can get the information needed to make arrests in other ways. An example: When someone is arrested and their fingerprints are taken, that information eventually makes its way to the FBI, which shares it with ICE.

County Manager Chavez said the Thurston County Superior Courthouse does not have a formal policy to reference when immigration enforcement officers arrive at the courthouse. And City Attorney Barber said neither does Olympia Municipal Court.

Olympia lawyer Victor Minjares, who, in addition to representing the arrested man's partner in this matter, serves on the Board of Directors of CIELO, takes issue with that. CIELO is a nonprofit organization that provides services and resources to the local Spanish-speaking community.

"I'm concerned because there's no policy that the courts have about what happens when ICE shows up," he told The Olympian.

King County does have such a policy -- but it only addresses actions inside of courtrooms and courthouses.

"I would think the city would have the right to ask that agency not to locate themselves on city property," Barber said. "Now, whether or not the agency would contest that issue remains to be seen. They don't necessarily have the right to be on city-owned property unless they have some reason, based on statute, they can point to."

But, he acknowledged, "The municipal court is open to the public, so it gets to be kind of an interesting issue."

Immigration lawyer Seifert said ICE officers have a right to be in any public area, regardless of any "sanctuary" declaration.

"Even if the county declared itself to be a so-called sanctuary area, a sanctuary jurisdiction, those declarations don't ever have any impact on where a federal officer or state or local officer can be," Seifert said. "With some big exceptions -- like churches or schools are, generally, off-limits."

In the wake of the June 20 arrest, Chavez said the county is still gathering information and deciding if it will take any next steps.

"They're federal agencies carrying what they presume to be a federal mandate," Chavez said. "I don't know how the county can intervene. I'm struggling to find out what others have done. ... At some point, we'll probably have to convene with key stakeholders to go through what happened and see if there's anything that could've been done differently."