In response to a March 3 arrest by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers of 43-year-old Albert Uc Ponce in front of a San Francisco courthouse, the San Francisco Public Defender's Office announced new measures to prevent unlawful arrests of undocumented immigrants at courthouses in the city.
Francisco Ugarte, Manager of the Immigration Defense Unit at the Public Defender’s Office, said the office plans to develop a program with the San Francisco Rapid Response Network to station legal observers outside of courthouses.
The office will also work with the District Attorney and court staff to implement other protections, including waiving appearances in court or securing alternative entrances into the courthouse for undocumented individuals, Ugarte said.
On Monday, a crowd of more than fifty people attended a rally and press conference called by a collection of immigrants' rights groups and public defender's offices around the Bay Area to denounce the recent arrests at courthouses.
"It's inhumane for our families to be terrorized," said Renee Saucedo, community organizer with the Graton Day Labor Center, to the assembled crowd. "We're not going to put up with you anymore. As long as you attack us, we will continue to fight back."
Immigrants' rights advocates at the rally condemned ICE for violating federal law by arresting Ponce without a warrant, a tactic the agency has been criticized for since its inception in 2003.
They also argued that ICE raids at courthouses violate state laws such as last year's Assembly Bill 668, which specifically prohibits civil arrests in courthouses.
In addition, San Francisco's Sanctuary City law, passed in 1989 and strengthened in 2013, prohibits city resources and employees from being used to assist ICE operations.
According to CBS SF Bay Area, Ponce was arrested just before his scheduled hearing related to a non-violent offense charge.
Advocates fear that the threat of ICE arrests will deter victims, witnesses, and the accused from attending court hearings. San Francisco is only one of several counties that has been targeted by ICE in the past several weeks — In Sonoma County, two individuals were detained and subsequently deported by ICE; one of those cases occurred inside the courthouse itself.
"Families are calling us, asking if it's safe for us to take their children to school or to the doctor," Saucedo said.
ICE agents say the restrictions just make it harder for them to do their jobs.
"Criminals like this individual are released to reoffend again and again," said ICE San Francisco Field Office Director David Jennings in a statement regarding the March 3 arrest.
"California Assembly Bill 668 cannot and will not govern the conduct of federal officers acting pursuant to duly-enacted laws passed by Congress that provide the authority to make administrative arrests of removable aliens inside the United States," he said.
Although the observation program is still in development, over the past several years, immigrants' rights organizations in San Francisco have built volunteer-run infrastructure to respond to ICE activity, including a 24/7 hotline and an accompaniment program that pairs volunteers with undocumented individuals to attend legal proceedings.
Ugarte said in the future, clients will be able to call the Public Defender's Office if they believe they are at risk of an ICE arrest and discuss measures to protect themselves as they interact with the judicial system.
He said public defenders will also be trained to demand a warrant from an ICE agent if an arrest is attempted.
Rapid Response Networks and Public Defender's Offices throughout Northern California will offer these protections for people with upcoming court proceedings, according to a press release from the organizations.
“When our trained legal observers are present to respond to these violations, we can stop ICE again and again,” said Luis Angel Reyes Savalza, an attorney coordinator for the Santa Clara County Rapid Response Network.
In Santa Clara county, where there were four attempts by ICE officers to arrest community members attending court hearings, legal observers were able to intercept each one of those arrests, Savalza said.
Ugarte said the likelihood of an ICE raid outside of the courthouse remains unlikely. In fact, this is the first time an arrest like this has been made in San Francisco.
“Our office is very zealous and we will not tolerate this. Judges will likely kick ICE agents out of court, too,” Ugarte said. “We’re not going to let this happen.”
Ponce is currently detained at an ICE detention center and receiving legal representation from the Public Defender's Office.