The United States is fortunate to have strong, independent courts. Our judicial system, while imperfect, is generally free to uphold the law and promote public safety without political interference.
That began to change in several unnerving ways during the Trump administration. Among the most concerning has been meddling from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in local court proceedings.
Since 2018, federal ICE agents have been hanging around municipal and state court rooms and arresting suspected undocumented immigrants who are appearing as witnesses or defendants. This interference is weakening our institutions, sowing distrust of our justice system and making it harder for local law enforcement to do their job.
In some cases, ICE has detained and deported defendants being charged with violent crimes. These individuals then, instead of getting convicted, are sent to their country of origin where we lose track of them.
In other cases, ICE has detained and deported witnesses mid-trial, frustrating prosecutors. If a key witness in a gang-violence case gets deported, the entire case can be put in jeopardy.
Increased ICE activity at courthouses discourages victims from even reporting crimes in the first place. As the Trump administration pressured federal ICE agents to interfere more with local justice systems, cities around the country found immigrants were less likely to report domestic violence.
The practice of courthouse arrests also badly complicates the lives and futures of residents who are non-citizens. Even minor, unresolved misdemeanor charges can prevent individual immigrants from obtaining visas to return to the U.S., while the faintest rumor of ICE enforcement can spread panic throughout communities.
None of this supports justice. None of this makes us safer.
Having ICE present – lurking, even – is a painful affront to victims and witnesses who come to our courts in search of justice. It is massively disrespectful to the local police, prosecutors and judges who are sworn to administer that justice.
Courts in Rhode Island should be supported as the independent institutions they are. They must be protected from interference that complicates their ability to ensure public safety.
That is why we are sponsoring legislation (2023-S 0621, 2023-H 6199) that would ban ICE from arresting individuals who are acting in good faith and attending court on behalf of themselves or a family member. That will ensure more trust, a stronger court system and safer streets for all of us.
Local law enforcement has known for years that trust from all communities, including our immigrant neighbors, is crucial. Police chiefs, prosecutors and judges understand that when people are afraid of appearing in court, it weakens their ability to ensure justice.
Strong, independent courts are vital to promoting public safety.
Trump may no longer be president, but his attack on our local justice system continues. It’s time for Rhode Island to tell ICE to stop undermining our courts and let our local public safety institutions do their job, without interference.
Sen. Meghan E. Kallman is a Democrat representing Senate District 15 (Pawtucket, Providence) in the Rhode Island Senate.
Rep. José F. Batista is a Democrat representing District 12 (Providence) in the Rhode Island House of Representatives.