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Come With Us, Please
Immigration dragnets could be having a chilling effect on local courthouses.


A march in April was intended as a response to deportations.

 (photo by Sean Drews) 

On July 8, 2013, Jose Calderon, then 36 years old, appeared in Ozaukee County court for a hearing connected to a misdemeanor charge. Calderon had been ticketed for driving without a license, his second such charge in three years. The first had been prosecuted in Milwaukee County, where he lives, but it was in Ozaukee County that something unexpected happened. After Calderon had paid his fines, and as he was leaving the courthouse in Port Washington, two officers with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and a deputy with the county sheriff’s department stopped him and took him to a room where several other people were being held. Despite residing in Milwaukee for 17 years and raising two children here, Calderon lives in the country illegally.

Officers questioned his immigration status and held him in custody for several hours, he says, before releasing him. Later, he learned that ICE officials had set in motion deportation proceedings – one example of how the federal agency is stepping up its presence at county courthouses in Wisconsin. Since 2013, the immigrant rights group Voces de la Frontera has received about 10 direct reports of similar enforcement actions at courthouses in the state, including those in Ozaukee, Milwaukee and Racine counties.

“It’s an act of desperation that they’re going to the courts,” says Christine Neumann-Ortiz, Voces executive director who speculates that the interrogations are happening because the enforcement agency has deportation quotas to meet. Otherwise, it may lose funding. (ICE didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

Some of the reports Voces has received came from people who now avoid courthouses to pay fines or testify, and one woman told the group that she and her husband witnessed a serious crime but were afraid to appear in court, lest they fall into an immigration dragnet. “Even the rumor of an ICE presence will drive people away,” Neumann-Ortiz says.

According to Voces, driving without a license is the most common offense committed by defendants who also get targeted by ICE, even though the agency has stated that it intends to focus on immigrants who pose a threat – those who have violent criminal backgrounds – when enforcing deportation laws. Because of this, state Rep. Cory Mason (D-Racine) argues that courthouses should be added to the “safe zones” where ICE officials tread lightly, a list that includes locations such as churches and hospitals.

In Racine, officers have been showing up on special days when the courthouse provides Spanish language interpreters, a tactic Mason describes as rounding up the “low-hanging” fruit. “I don’t think a courthouse where people are going to pay traffic fines is a place where people should be targeted,” says Mason, who was one of 22 state lawmakers who signed onto a letter protesting the practice. “You wouldn’t target parents picking up kids from schools.”

ICE uses other points in the criminal justice system to find immigrants residing in the country illegally. For one, the agency requests that local police detain criminal suspects also believed to have broken immigration laws – a tactic the Milwaukee County Board attempted to restrict in 2012. It passed a resolution declaring that only suspects who meet one of a number of standards, such as a felony conviction, should be detained, but Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke Jr. has “continued to thumb his nose” at the guidelines, according to Neumann-Ortiz.

Clarke’s powers have always included, as the resolution itself notes, “broad latitude ... over inmate detentions.” Between 2010 and 2011, the Sheriff’s Office detained 439 inmates on behalf of ICE, even as demonstrations against deportations became commonplace. In April, protesters marched on the agency’s office in Milwaukee and cited as inspiration the anti-deportation campaign #Not1More. 

This article appears in the May 2014 issue of Milwaukee Magazine. 
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