Group seeks to ban ICE from making courthouse arrests as Fresno detentions continue

Jaime Ramon celebrated his first birthday Wednesday without his father — who is now thousands of miles away from Fresno County, unable to help his son blow out his first candle.

Around mid-July, his father, Jaime Martinez, 27, was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents at the Fresno Superior Court as he waited for a judge to call his case. An undocumented immigrant, Jaime Martinez was deported to Mexico within 48 hours after his arrest.

Marisol Rojas, 23, a U.S. citizen who’s been Martinez’s partner for four years, on Wednesday placed a candle shaped like a “1” in the center of a chocolate frosted birthday cake.

Sitting in her Sanger apartment, Rojas lamented Martinez wasn’t at their son’s birthday party. He’d never missed a family celebration, and was present for the birth of their two children. It’s “heartbreaking” not to have him around, she said. “I don’t think it’s fair.”

The couple had gone through turbulent times after domestic violence issues surfaced in the household. That resulted in Jaime Martinez’s arrest on a felony charge of corporal injury to a spouse or cohabitant.

Rojas says they were both making efforts to salvage their relationship and chart a future together. They had plans to get married soon.

Martinez’s story is one of many that have emerged recently, as ICE agents last month began arresting undocumented immigrants at the Fresno courthouse.

The arrests have prompted concerns among attorneys and human rights activists over whether individuals’ rights to due process are being violated.

Since the local arrests began last month, some agencies that work with undocumented immigrants have begun taking their own steps to protect them. Some are even asking the courts to ban courthouse arrests by ICE altogether.

The nonprofit Legal Aid at Work announced Wednesday it has petitioned California’s Judicial Council to develop a statewide rule that would prohibit courthouse arrests by ICE agents.

In its application, Legal Aid at Work cites arrests made by ICE agents at the Fresno Superior Court. Marisa Diaz, a staff attorney for the nonprofit, said the petition is supported by lawyers, retired judges, civil rights groups, law professors and others.

If the application is successful, the ban would prevent ICE agents from arresting undocumented immigrants while inside or traveling to a state court to conduct court-related business. For example, the proposed ban would protect people seeking a restraining order against an abuser, testifying in court, or pursing a claim of unpaid wages.

Diaz said the proposed rule is based on centuries of state and federal law that says judges have a right to protect anyone from being arrested when they go to court to participate in judicial proceedings.

“Without this rule, a whole class of people simply cannot go to the courts to protect themselves, which encourages exploitation and abuse,” Diaz said. “We call upon the California judiciary to fix this problem immediately by adopting this rule.”

ICE spokesman Richard A. Rocha declined to comment on the efforts by Legal Aid at Work. He also referred the reporter to the agency’s previous statement that said the practice was consistent with longstanding practice across the country.

ICE said it wouldn’t be “able to confirm the first arrest” that ever took place at the Fresno courthouse as it doesn’t ”tally” the arrests by locations. The agency wasn’t able to “confirm for sure” that ICE is currently active in other California courthouses as well.

Meanwhile, at a ground level, others are extending assistance to undocumented immigrants who fear going to court, since they could now be arrested.

Faith in Fresno, a faith-based grassroots organization, is recruiting volunteers to accompany undocumented people to court for moral support, according to Ariana Martinez Lott, rapid response organizer. “ICE is going to be doing this and we are just not going to turn out backs to it. We want to show that these actions don’t go unnoticed,” she said.

Martinez Lott said while calls to the organization’s rapid-response team, which assists families facing threats -- including racial attacks, religious threats or deportation threats -- haven’t increased, there has been a rise in calls from undocumented individuals afraid to go to court.

In one week the group received six of those calls, which is “abnormal.”

“This is really breaking trust between our court system and the community,” Martinez Lott said. “I think most importantly, our concern is this is going to prevent people from pursuing their court cases when they are trying to do the right thing.”

So far, there are no indications ICE agents plan on ceasing courthouse arrests.

Fresno attorney Nicholas Reyes on Tuesday witnessed his client, Juan Carlos Martinez being taken by ICE agents — through a courthouse tunnel that’s typically used only by authorized courthouse personnel, and not considered a public area.

ICE formalized its courthouse arrests in a memo it released in January. Reyes said the directive, which he called “racist,” comes from the top.

“ICE has intervened, interrupted and basically castrated the (judicial) system... That directive is an interference in the state’s right to implement their own remedies on cases and solutions,” he said. “This is a disgrace, it’s outrageous, and another Trump policy aimed at eliminating people of color.”

More questions on arrests surface

Earlier this month, Tony Botti, spokesman for the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office, said his office had “no problem” with ICE agents not alerting the office of the arrests. He said the courthouse was a state building and ICE agents had access to the facility.

However, ICE’s arrest this week raised more questions since the agents, according to Reyes, used a restricted area that’s not open to the public.

Assistant Sheriff Tom Gattie on Wednesday initially said ICE agents would have access to “the same locations as the public” at the courthouse.

Once he look into the details of this week’s ICE arrest of Juan Carlos Martinez, he said a sheriff’s deputy allowed ICE agents to exit the courthouse through “an employee” point of entry and exit near the Sheriff’s Court Dispatch. It was done for the safety and security of the person who was arrested, as well as the public, he said.

“Without adding to any attempt by anyone to sensationalize or demonize this singular arrest, I do not believe the arrest or the subsequent action qualifies as a violation of any law or SB 54,” he said. Senate Bill 54 is California’s Sanctuary Law.

Under the state’s Sanctuary Law, State Attorney General Xavier Becerra has until Oct. 1 to publish policies that will limit assistance by local authorities on immigration enforcement.

“We will try to implement them when we see them,” Gattie said.

Witnesses said another ICE arrest happened Wednesday at the courthouse.

Fresno Superior Court Presiding Judge Alan M. Simpson has repeatedly declined to comment on the issue. Court Spokeswoman Suzanne Abi-Rached on Wednesday would only say the “Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court, Tani Cantil-Sakauye, has spoken on behalf of California Courts.”

Cantil-Sakauye in has strongly opposed ICE courthouse arrests in the past and called for the practice to be halted.

One separated family

Court records show Jaime Martinez was arrested April 3 and later released on $15,000 bail. On May 7, he pleaded no contest to reduce the charge to misdemeanor assault. Judge Glenda Allen-Hill sentenced him to three years of probation and ordered him to attend a batterer’s treatment program.

On May 14, Martinez showed proof to court he had entered a batterer’s treatment program. He was ordered to return to court on July 17 for a progress review, according to court records.

As part of that progress review, Rojas said, the judge was scheduled to consider lifting a restraining order on Martinez. According documents reviewed by The Bee, a protective order for Rojas was filed on April 18, requiring Martinez to not have any contact or come within 70 yards of her.

On July 17, Martinez went to court, but “then was detained by ICE during break,” according to court records. When the judge called his case, Martinez was found to be in “violation of probation” because he wasn’t present. But Judge Allen-Hill recalled a warrant for Martinez’s arrest and ordered probation officials to look into Martinez’s ICE custody status.

Allen-Hill scheduled an Aug. 28 status hearing on Jaime Martinez’s case. Records reviewed by The Bee show that Martinez had completed six classes of comprehensive counseling services, and Rojas was also taking classes on domestic violence.

Rojas says she will fight to be reunited with Jaime Martinez. He had no prior criminal record, she said, adding that he worked and provided for the family, so Rojas could stay home and tend to their young children.

Now, she’s not sure what the future holds for them, but they’ve been in contact since Martinez was deported. “Do you want to marry me?” Rojas said Martinez messaged her on Monday.

“Will you wait for me or no? I told him, ‘I will wait for you because we have our children.’”

Yesenia Amaro: 559-441-6144, @YeseniaAmaro