When immigration lawyers with the Meyer Law Firm first captured video evidence of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents conducting arrests inside the hallways of the Lindsey Flanigan Courthouse in February, it caused panic in Denver’s immigrant communities.
Since the video’s release, Denver’s City Attorney Kristin Bronson announced that nine domestic violence cases had to be dropped because witnesses or victims in the cases were afraid to report to the courthouse for hearings; they thought they might encounter ICE agents.
In April, Mayor Michael Hancock and members of Denver’s city council sent a letter to the director of the local ICE field office requesting that ICE stay out of Denver’s courthouses. The city received a response in early June in which ICE flatly rejected the request, arguing that it was safer for ICE agents to use public courthouse hallways to conduct their operations because everyone has to enter the courthouse through secure screening.
Mayor Hancock’s Deputy Communications Director Jenna Espinoza says that the Mayor was not surprised but disappointed by the response. (In March, Jeff Sessions and DHS Secretary John Kelly had already told California’s Chief Justice the same thing: ICE will continue to operate inside courthouses).
Espinoza adds that, because of ICE’s operations, “We’re seeing the direct effects of fear building in our communities. Those direct effects include people not coming forward to participate in our judicial system.”
But in the last couple of months, Denver has introduced a couple of measures that aim to alleviate concerns about ICE and keep people engaged with the judicial system.
One of those measures is a plea-by-mail program, through which people can mail in pleas to traffic court and therefore not have to show up to the courtroom in person. So far, 55 people have mailed in pleas.
“We’ve seen great success with it,” says Espinoza. “We’re looking at expanding it, including allowing people to Skype into hearings.”
A second measure has given witnesses or victims in domestic violence cases the option to wait outside of the Lindsey Flanigan Courthouse — in a different building — before their hearings start.
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The waiting area is at the Rose Andom Center, which serves domestic violence victims, located at Fox Street and 13th Avenue. There, a victim’s advocate alerts and escorts people to their hearings at the nearby courthouse when it’s time for their hearing.
"Now, that's not to say that there's anything that [the victim advocate] can do to necessarily intervene if there is an ICE agent there and is ready to enforce immigration,” explains Espinoza. “But I think it’s preventing people from hanging around the courthouses for longer than necessary. It helps provide assistance and protection to victims or witnesses of domestic violence, and it's an incentive that we can provide to them, for them to continue to participate in the judicial system."
Ultimately, Espinoza says, "these measures make sure that criminals are not going back out on the streets when the city is forced to drop charges against them, ultimately not holding them accountable for their crimes."