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Video: ICE arrest tactics roil Twin Cities courthouses

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Still from a video of Urrutia's arrest by two plainclothes ICE agents
Still image of two plainclothes ICE agents inside the Ramsey County Courthouse from a video that shows Carlos Urrutia's arrest. YouTube Video
YouTube screenshot

Federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents are increasingly finding their arrest targets inside local courthouses. But one arrest caught on video last Thursday in St. Paul has immigrant advocates crying foul.

The video shows Carlos Urrutia's arrest by two plainclothes ICE agents inside the Ramsey County Courthouse. He was taken into custody after a sentencing hearing tied to his 2017 arrest for driving under the influence in Roseville, where he had struck and injured a pedestrian.

There's no indication ICE agents violated protocol or any rules of behavior inside the courthouse as they arrested Urrutia, 44. But the advocacy group ISAIAH is raising questions about the agents' approach and whether it's fair to conduct those types of arrests inside government buildings.

In the video, Urrutia's family can be heard asking the agents for an explanation as they try to stop the officers from taking him. There's a back-and-forth between family and the agents that becomes increasingly tense.

A January memo from ICE said courthouse arrests of undocumented immigrants are safer for agents and the public since people inside the courthouse have already been screened through metal detectors.

But in Urrutia's case, an immigration judge released him on bond to attend rehab and canceled his order for removal from the United States.

"I think if ICE wants to be credible when they say that they're going to conduct arrests where there is a threat to public safety, we need to have some standards and clarity as to what represents public safety and who represents public safety," said John Keller, executive director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota.

Urrutia came from Mexico to the United States 25 years ago. He has three children who are U.S. citizens.

He came to ICE's attention following his March 2017 DUI case. The agency began removal proceedings then.

An immigration judge canceled Urrutia's removal order and released him from detention to attend an alcohol rehabilitation program. He was in the process of trying to get a green card, according to his lawyer, Graham Ojala-Barbour.

ICE, though, successfully appealed the immigration judge's decision, putting Urrutia at risk again for deportation. He's since requested to reopen his case based on his rehabilitation progress since the March 2017 incident.

Urrutia is a member of ISAIAH, a coalition of more than 100 faith groups in Minnesota. Group members say Urrutia had recently been living in sanctuary at a church but came out to attend his sentencing hearing. A Ramsey County District Court judge sentenced him to supervised probation for five years.

Urrutia, whose record also includes two other convictions of driving while intoxicated from 1996 and 2004, had a scheduled check-in with ICE in mid-August, which is why advocates were puzzled when he was arrested in the courthouse in late July. 

"Carlos had throughout his whole case accepted his faults and mistakes in this," said Catalina Morales, an organizer with ISAIAH who shot the video of Urrutia's courthouse arrest and can be heard asking on the video, "Do you have a warrant? I need a warrant."

She continued to ask for identification when one of the officers finally responded "I don't need to present you with anything, we're effecting an arrest."

Immigration officials are required to present warrants before entering homes or private spaces, but it's different in public buildings. Courthouses aren't considered "sensitive locations" and are open to anyone, although the agency encourages ICE officers to "exercise sound judgment" and "avoid unnecessarily alarming the public."

Morales said that didn't happen in this case. The video becomes shaky toward the end because, according to Morales, the officers pushed her out of the way.

"As a woman of color right now in this country and as a DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipient, I walk very carefully in this world," she said, "because I know how there is a lot of people that don't really agree that Carlos and I deserve to be here or deserve to have respect as human beings."

Immigrant rights advocates and public defenders expressed concerns that these types of courthouse arrests are creating fear and anxiety in immigrant communities to the point that residents aren't seeking public services at all in any government building.

Mary Moriarty, Hennepin County's chief public defender, said immigration officers have routinely reached undocumented immigrants in county jails and courthouses.

A few months ago, one of the office's clients was meeting with his attorney in the middle of a pre-trial hearing when ICE agents showed up. The man never finished his hearing.

"He was sitting outside of our courtroom with one of our lawyers and ICE came up in the courthouse on the elevator and walked down the hall and arrested him," she said.

Moriarty said some clients have been arrested before they make first appearances. The trend is problematic, she added, because first appearances are an opportunity for people charged with crimes to choose whether they want public defender representation.

The public defender's office screens every client for immigration violations. Moriarty said sometimes they're able to find a path to legalization depending on the case. For example, victims of crimes who cooperate with police are eligible for what's called a "U visa."

That can't happen if a client is arrested before they make their first appearance, Moriarty said. "So, they're actually going off to immigration court, having no idea what's going on with their criminal case, and not having an opportunity to talk to a lawyer about their immigration case."

ICE arrested Urrutia on immigration violations, and he remains in custody pending his appeals request, ICE spokesperson Nicole Alberico said.

She did not answer a question regarding the number of arrests that have taken place in Minnesota courthouses but in a statement said, "ICE officers conduct themselves in accordance with the authorities conveyed to them under federal law and the Constitution."

People who try to intervene in ICE arrests "recklessly endanger not only the enforcement personnel, but also the individuals targeted for arrest and potentially innocent bystanders," she added.