ICE stops at Colorado courthouses leave immigrants fearful. This bill aims to change that.

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When Paulina Martinez walked out of the Littleton Municipal Courthouse in January 2018, she spotted a white, unmarked van parked outside. Two men in plain clothes were sitting in it.

She tried to ignore it, said goodbye to her attorney, and she and her partner — both undocumented immigrants — began walking to their car. Suddenly, the men jumped out of the van and began questioning the couple. They were ICE agents. Martinez threw her purse to her partner and asked him to go find their attorney.

The 32-year-old, who has lived in Colorado most of her life, was a wreck. She had a 4-month-old baby and a toddler at home. When her partner and attorney ran back toward her, the ICE agents had already detained Martinez and were getting her inside the van.

Martinez’s nightmare is one that immigration attorneys estimate affects hundreds of people across Colorado each year. Immigrant advocates and even some district attorneys say the courthouse arrests impede the criminal justice system. Colorado Sen. Julie Gonzales, D-Denver, has introduced a bill to prohibit civil arrests from taking place in courthouses or for people who are on their way to courthouses, similar to laws in other states.

But ICE officials contend it’s the only way to detain undocumented immigrants when local and state jurisdictions don’t cooperate with federal immigration authorities.

Martinez knew her immigration arrest was a possibility. ICE agents had previously threatened — while she was in jail for two days as the courts were closed — to show up to her first court hearing for suspicion of harassment. She and her partner said the charge stemmed from an argument they had after drinking, and they were trying to get it dropped. Her attorney told her it was unlikely ICE would come after her because she wouldn’t be considered a priority case for deportation. But no one was certain.

“I was nervous, but I somehow felt safe knowing that it was a small court. It was considered to be a small case,” Martinez said. “In my eyes, it was a misunderstanding, and I was willing to go and show up to court and just do the right thing and explain myself. I knew there were consequences and I wanted to make sure I did everything right.”

Martinez was initially charged with a municipal ordinance violation for harassment. She pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct, and that was later dismissed when she completed mandatory counseling.

But that didn’t change the fact that the court appearance put her on ICE’s radar. Although Martinez grew up trusting the American criminal justice system, that trust has eroded.

“It’s hard because I want to trust the system. I want to trust the courts,” she said.

Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post

Paulina Martinez, 32, mother of two daughters at her home in Englewood on Jan. 16.

Feds vs. the local government

Across the state and the country, advocates have documented cases of undocumented immigrants entering courthouses as defendants, witnesses or victims, and then getting detained by ICE agents. The Meyer Law Firm alone has spoken to at least five dozen people who have been arrested by ICE in courthouses in the past year.

The city of Denver has previously requested ICE stay out of its courthouses, which local officials say federal agents have refused to do. Judges in some counties have issued directives preventing ICE agents from entering their courtrooms.

Denver field office ICE directors declined a request for an interview, but a spokesperson said in a statement that ICE has the authority to continue the practice.

“ICE officers have been provided broad at-large arrest authority by Congress and may lawfully arrest removable aliens in courthouses, which is often necessitated by local policies that prevent law enforcement from cooperating with ICE efforts to arrange for a safe and orderly transfer of custody in the setting of a state or county prison or jail,” spokesperson Alethea Smock wrote.

If the bill passes, though, ICE agents who break the state law could face legal action.

The Meyer Law Office, where Gonzales previously worked, helped her craft the legislation after seeing an uptick in the arrests across Colorado judicial districts since 2017.

“One of the main goals of the bill is to preserve the integrity of our courts and the functioning of our government,” said Arash Jahanian, director of policy and civil rights litigation at the Meyer Law Office.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado has also tracked numerous cases across the state.

Paulina Martinez, 32, center, is with ...

Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post

Paulina Martinez, 32, center, is with her daughters Camila, 5, left, and Maia, 2, at their home in Englewood on Jan. 16.

“Trying to access justice”

“The thing that’s so compelling here is people are trying to access justice,” said lead immigration attorney Hans Meyer of Meyer Law Office. “They want to believe in our court system … without being terrorized about the ability or possibility or even likelihood of being arrested by immigration authorities.”

The tug-of-war between the local governments and federal immigration authorities came to a head last week when ICE subpoenaed Denver law enforcement for information on four foreign nationals wanted for deportation.

“ICE will look for whatever ways it can to kind of skirt the law and to violate respect for local and state government trying to function,” Jahanian said. “When you have an agency that acts in this manner, it’s important for state and local government to step up and pass measures to protect the community.”

The Denver District Attorney’s Office has expressed its support for Gonzales’ bill.

“For the legal system to function, everyone needs to feel safe in court whether they be witnesses, victims or defendants,” spokesperson Carolyn Tyler wrote in a statement.

However, not all district attorneys are as supportive — Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler called the bill extreme and broad. Littleton, where Martinez’s case was handled, is in Arapahoe County, although the case was handled in municipal court.

Brauchler worries that the bill will apply to all types of civil arrests, including those for contempt of court, child support noncompliance and dependency and neglect cases. He also questioned its constitutionality.

“This bill is so broad and reckless in its approach to try and tackle something that is a federal issue,” he said.

Brauchler believes the bill will turn courthouses into “sanctuaries” despite objections from Gonzales and the Meyer Law Office about the bill’s intent.

Polis “supports the principle”

Sanctuary status has been a thorny political issue in Colorado. Many Democratic lawmakers support statewide protections, but Democratic Gov. Jared Polis initially threatened to veto a bill last year that limited cooperation between local and state law enforcement. Polis was similarly opposed to provisions in an immigration bill being drafted last year called Virginia’s Law — named after a woman who called 911 to report being assaulted and was then detained by ICE.

But Gonzales said this bill is different than last year’s, and while she has not spoken to the governor about it, she looks forward to working with his office and others in a bipartisan way.

“What is clear is doing nothing is not an option and particularly given the amount of fear that exists from everyday Coloradans from being able to go to court and handle their affairs,” Gonzales said. “We need to ensure that all members of the public can access the courthouse systems.”

In his State of the State address this month, Polis expressed his support for Dreamers and immigrants in Colorado, and in a statement his office said he backs the intent behind the bill.