New videos show ICE arresting immigrants at Denver courthouse, despite local leaders’ requests

This is a controversial practice that Denver officials have asked ICE to stop because it scares people away from participating in the justice system.
8 min. read
A man is detained at the Lindsey-Flanigan Courthouse, reportedly by ICE agents. (Meyer Law Firm)

Hans Meyer addresses the press. Meyer Law Office, May 9, 2017. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

New videos from the last two weeks show Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers arresting people on immigration charges at the Lindsey-Flanigan Courthouse. This is a controversial practice that Denver officials have asked ICE to stop because it scares people away from participating in the justice system, whether as defendants, victims or witnesses.

The videos were released by the Meyer Law Office Tuesday morning. At a press conference, attorney Hans Meyer said the video shows that ICE will not respect the wishes of city officials, and the city needs to adopt a "bright line" sanctuary policy that keeps federal immigration authorities off city property. At the same time, it's not clear whether a local government could actually enforce such a policy.

"Actions speak louder than words," Meyer said. "ICE's arrest the day after our sanctuary forum is ICE spitting in the face of Denver's elected officials and saying they will not respect the request by the court, the request by the mayor or the request of the City Council to leave courthouses alone as sensitive locations so the criminal justice process or the civil justice process can unfold without ICE meddling in local affairs."

"When we have ICE showing up and conducting courthouse arrests, brutalizing people in full public view, it drives everyone away from trusting local government," he continued. "Victims to crime, witnesses to crime, people trying to pay fines, people trying to resolve their cases, will not come because ICE will manipulate the criminal justice system or the court system and use that as a basis to arrest people."

A spokeswoman for Mayor Michael Hancock reiterated the city's opposition to ICE using the courts to facilitate enforcement.

"These enforcement actions that are taking place in sensitive locations directly contradict written guidance provided by the Department of Homeland Security and strike fear in the heart of our immigrant community," Jenna Espinoza said in a statement. "The City and County of Denver outlined these impacts very clearly to ICE. We asked them to respect sensitive locations and take measures around these sensitive areas so as not to potentially put by-standers at risk, hinder the prosecution of crimes or compromise police-community relationships vital to public safety. It is disappointing that they have not responded to our requests."

That written guidance comes from 2011 and has not been formally rescinded. It lists sensitive locations like hospitals, schools, places of worship and the sites of public rallies and demonstrations. It does not explicitly list courthouses, something ICE has stressed.

However, the guidance goes on to say that the list is not "exclusive" and agents should consult with supervisors about places that could be considered sensitive.

"Supervisors should take extra care when assessing whether a planned enforcement action could reasonably be viewed as causing significant disruption to the normal operations of the sensitive location," the memo states. "ICE employees should also exercise caution. For example, particular care should be exercised with any organization assisting children, pregnant women, victims of crime or abuse or individuals with significant mental or physical disabilities."

In an interview, Espinoza said the city is looking seriously at the policy proposals from the Meyer Law Office, as well as other immigrant advocacy and civil rights organizations. However, the city does not believe it can bar ICE agents from the courthouse.

"We want to look at what is possible and what more we can do as a city to protect our people while balancing it with (the fact that) we definitely don't want to be shielding violent criminals," Espinoza said. "We want to make sure people committing bad crimes are held accountable."

The videos show one arrest in the vestibule of the courthouse and another in the plaza outside.

According to the law office, the man in the first video went to court on a misdemeanor traffic violation. The incident occurred in the entranceway of the Lindsey-Flanigan Courthouse on April 28. The man and his girlfriend, who shot the video in three segments on her phone, wish to remain anonymous, the law firm said, and this information cannot be independently verified. The man reportedly is now in an immigration detention facility in El Paso, Texas.

This is an upsetting video in which the man yells, "No!" and "My hand!" and "Why?" in Spanish while his girlfriend can be heard pleading with officers not to hurt him or to take him.

"That's not okay," she yells. "Let him go. He has a lawyer."

Sheriff's deputies maintain a kind of perimeter and tell passers-by to keep moving. Espinoza said the sheriff's department does not assist in arrests by ICE agents, but deputies wouldn't try to stop such an arrest either. There is no specific policy around how to treat immigration arrests in courthouse, but Espinoza said deputies' primary responsibility is the security and safe operation of the courthouse as a whole.

"We've said time and time again that we're not going to step in and assist, but we're also not going to step in to deter that arrest either," she said. "That's not our jurisdiction. We don't have the authority to ban anyone, whether they're ICE agents or journalists."

Mike Wishnie, a deputy dean and law professor at the Yale Law School, said it's not a matter of banning people but behaviors.

"So, is Denver totally powerless? It can do nothing whatsoever about this? These courthouses are public parks that anyone can wander through with their dogs and jogging?" he asked rhetorically during a panel discussion on immigration enforcement Tuesday. "No, of course not. These are public properties that are regulated by Denver … I assume there are limitations on marching bands in the Denver courthouse and commercial activities. I’m aware of no reason that Denver authorities could not say, ‘You can come in, it’s open to the public, but there’s certain activities you can’t do, like wrestling people to the ground and handcuffing them in the lobby.'”

The second video is recorded in the plaza outside the courthouse.

Antonio Garcia, a client of the law firm, goes quietly. This incident occurred on Friday, May 5. Matthew Keller, Garcia's attorney, is filming. The agents say they have a warrant but won't show it to Keller. In the video, they decline to provide their names and badge numbers and refer Keller to a public information officer.

According to the law firm, Garcia is now being held in the Aurora immigration detention facility.

Keller declined to discuss the nature of the charges against Garcia or whether he has previous charges; however, he did say he was not aware of any felony convictions or pending felony charges against Garcia. Colorado court records show that an Antonio Garcia with the same attorney, Matthew Keller, was arrested in Denver on suspicion of driving under the influence in March and appeared in court on May 5.

Keller declined to discuss the details of Garcia's immigration status but said that he believes he can make a case against deportation.

Julie Gonzales, policy director for the law firm, said it's particularly concerning that the agents won't show the warrant to someone who identified himself as Garcia's attorney, and Meyer said Garcia will not necessarily have the same recourse in immigration court as a defendant in criminal court would to overturn a legally questionable arrest.

Denverite was the first English language media outlet to report on video from earlier this year that confirmed the presence of ICE in courthouses. City Attorney Kristin Bronson has said some immigrant crime victims have stopped cooperating with police and prosecutors because they fear being detained if they go to court. Espinoza said that continues to be the case, though it's hard to say how common it is. In some cases, victims or witnesses don't come to court, and prosecutors never know why.

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and a long list of other local officials formally asked ICE to treat courthouses like "sensitive locations" and not make arrests there. At that time, ICE spokesman Carl Rusnok said the agency will continue to make arrests at courthouses when they feel that's the best option. People in court have been screened for weapons, and they're easier to find than people in the community.

"The agency’s pursuit of criminal aliens is motivated solely by our commitment to promote public safety," he said in an email.

The policies that Meyer and Gonzales would like to see the city adopt include:

  • Adding "noncitizen" to the class of people guaranteed equal protection under the law and "immigration or citizenship status" to the personal characteristics for which discrimination is prohibited;
  • Not complying with any request from federal immigration authorities unless ICE provides a warrant signed by a judge or magistrate, not simply an administrative warrant;
  • Prohibiting the use of city funds to facilitate immigration investigations, including restricting the use of city facilities like courthouses, not providing booking lists and detainee information and not releasing incarceration status or release dates;
  • Protecting personal information the city might happen to have about immigrants as a result of providing other services;
  • Establishing a noncitizen legal defense fund.

Andrew Kenney contributed to this report.

This story has been updated throughout.

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