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Story highlights

Local officials have also asked DHS to not make arrests at courthouses

DHS has maintained it will continue to do so

Washington CNN —  

The US Commission on Civil Rights on Monday criticized the Trump administration for the way it is arresting undocumented immigrants, saying it could be harmful to “access to justice.”

The public rebuke from a federally appointed commission adds to a chorus of local and state officials who have pleaded with the administration to not arrest immigrants at courthouses, an action that advocates say can hurt public safety by making people afraid to cooperate with law enforcement.

In a statement released Monday, the commission asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly “to consider the fair administration of justice when determining how and where they send Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents.”

Citing several cases from around the country, the commission said it was “concerned” about reports that non-criminal undocumented immigrants were being arrested at courthouses.

“Stationing ICE agents in local courthouses instills needless additional fear and anxiety within immigrant communities, discourages interacting with the judicial system, and endangers the safety of entire communities,” the commission wrote. “Courthouses are often the first place individuals interact with local governments. It is the site of resolution for not only criminal matters, where a victim might seek justice when she has been harmed or wronged, but also for resolution of civil matters, including family and custody issues, housing, public benefits, and numerous other aspects integral to an individual’s life.”

DHS said the statement from the Civil Rights Commission was based on “innuendo and incorrect assumptions” and that they did not contact the department in advance.

“Determinations about where and how ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) personnel carry out arrests are made on a case-by-case basis, taking into account all aspects of the situation, including the target’s criminal history; safety considerations; the viability of the leads on the individual’s whereabouts; and any sensitivities involving the prospective arrest location,” spokeswoman Gillian Christensen said. “In that vein, ICE officers are not ‘stationed’ at courthouses. Rather, courthouse arrests occur when investigating officers have exhausted all other options of possible apprehension.”

DOJ declined to comment.

The statement from the commission follows similar requests from officials around the country. California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye also wrote a letter to Sessions and Kelly expressing similar concerns, asking them to top making such arrests in California courthouses.

The Cabinet officials wrote back, saying they would continue to make such arrests and blaming sanctuary cities’ lack of cooperation with federal law enforcement for needing to make such arrests in public. They wrote that officials unhappy with the arrests should revoke so-called sanctuary policies, and they have continued to defend arrests at courthouses as safer than trying to apprehend people in environments without the security of courthouses.

The US Commission on Civil Rights noted, though, that courthouse arrests have happened even in places without sanctuary policies, and it argued that arresting witnesses and crime-reporting community members at courthouses will make it less likely that undocumented immigrants will report crimes or agree to testify in cases.

“The fair administration of justice requires equal access to our courthouses,” commission Chairwoman Catherine Lhamon said in the statement. “People are at their most vulnerable when they seek out the assistance of local authorities, and we are all less safe if individuals who need help do not feel safe to come forward.”

The commission is made up of eight commissioners, no more than four of whom can come from the same political party. Four members are appointed by the president and four by Congress, all to six-year terms.

Shortly before leaving office, former President Barack Obama appointed Lhamon and another commissioner. The board currently is composed of four Democrats, three independents and one Republican, Peter Kirsanow, who testified in favor of Sessions’ confirmation before the Senate earlier this year.