(CN) - Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrest people when they go to courthouses to pay traffic tickets, report crimes or get married, the ACLU says in a letter demanding an end to the practice.
In a 6-page letter to the investigative arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, ACLU Southern California staff attorney Michael Kaufman asked ICE to stop the "abusive arrests" at Kern County courthouses, in and around Bakersfield.
The ACLU claims the arrests violate ICE's alleged policy that agents avoid making arrests in "sensitive locations," such as schools, hospitals, churches and other places of worship.
The ACLU urged ICE to add courthouses to that list.
The letter cites several ICE arrests at Kern County courts. It claims the courthouse raids are "causing significant harm in the Kern County community."
"The arrests have prevented residents from complying with their obligations to pay
citations and appear for court hearings, and from obtaining restraining orders, marriage licenses and other essential court services," Kaufman wrote. "Moreover, ICE's actions have created a culture of fear, deterring residents from exercising their constitutional right and civic duty to appear for court hearings or seek court services."
In one case this year, Sergio Villatoro was at a Kern County courthouse in Lamont, Calif., to pay a parking ticket when ICE agents arrived and blocked the exits, the ACLU says. Agents did not confirm Villatoro's identity or his immigration status when they arrested him and five other Latinos waiting to pay tickets, the letter states.
Villatoro had been in America for a decade and never was arrested. He was about to pay a ticket for driving without a license. If deported, Villatoro will have to leave behind two young children, both U.S. citizens, the ACLU says.
Indian national Gurvinder Singh was arrested in September 2012 at the Kern County courthouse where he was present to marry his partner, Kuldeet Kaur. Singh says ICE agents detained him after he told them he had entered the United States through Mexico.
Singh had sought asylum in the United States, was in immigration proceedings and had never missed a court appearance, the ACLU says.
Singh was detained and released. ICE monitored him electronically and made him report to the agency every 15 days, Kaufman said.
The attorney said ICE has arrested victims of crime and witnesses at courthouses.
ICE's courthouse raids are not limited to Kern County; they also have been reported in Santa Clara, according to the ACLU letter.
"Attending court hearings is not only a constitutionally protected right, but it is vital to public safety that residents can appear in court, comply with law enforcement citations and court orders, and seek other court services without fear of reprisal from ICE," Kaufman wrote.
The letter is addressed to John Sandweg, ICE Acting Director.
ICE did not immediately respond to a request for an interview.
The courthouse raids appear to belie ICE officials' oft-repeated statements that the agency concentrates its efforts on arresting and deporting dangerous criminals.