RACINE COUNTY — Court officials and local activists are accusing a federal agency of racial profiling and discrimination against some Hispanic men and women in Racine County.
The reason, they say, is because when these Hispanic immigrants show up in court on select days for traffic offenses or misdemeanors, oftentimes federal immigration agents are waiting in the wings. And some of these defendants may face deportation after being caught in court.
“What we’re hearing is people are showing up for their traffic court or misdemeanors, and walking out and being met by (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) agents,” said Assistant State Public Defender Margaret Johnson, who serves as statewide racial disparity practice coordinator for the state’s Public Defender’s Office.
That apparently happens on the first Wednesday and first Friday of each month. On those days, Spanish-speaking defendants facing misdemeanor and traffic charges are scheduled to appear in Racine County court for various hearings. That arrangement has been in place for the past four to five years for those needing Spanish-speaking court interpreters, said Sam Christensen, administrative deputy clerk for the Racine County Clerk of Courts office.
“It started as a cost savings,” Christensen said. It was “going to make it easier to have a couple of interpreters on a few days of week.”
There is a limited pool of certified interpreters, he explained, and Spanish-speaking interpreters are, by far, in greatest demand. Additionally, Racine County’s court system is competing with Milwaukee County’s, and federal and immigration courts, he said.
But what began as a cost-savings measure has reportedly turned into much more — now dubbed “Spanish Days,” Christensen said.
“We really didn’t intend for this to turn into ‘Spanish Days,’ ” he said. “I think it’s offensive to call it ‘Spanish Days.’ ”
He said he heard in October that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents were “here (and had) arrested all these people. I don’t know how they got involved. It certainly wasn’t our agency.”
He said he doesn’t know if ICE agents have been looking up illegal immigrants’ names in Wisconsin’s online public court records system, then showing up on their days in court.
“We have no reason to contact (ICE),” Christensen said. “When it comes right down to it, we don’t care if you’re here legally or illegally. We’re here to move people through (the court system) and process their cases ... and get them their services.”
The people going to misdemeanor and traffic court usually are not appearing for felonies, and typically aren’t violent offenders.
“Especially nowadays when everybody has (news stories) about racial profiling, arresting agencies want to be careful about these things, don’t they? Don’t you want to be careful of that, or even the appearance of that (racial profiling)?” Christensen asked.
Adrienne Moore, who heads the state Public Defender’s trial office in Racine, said she heard from lawyers this summer that ICE agents were appearing in court.
“One of the attorneys brought it to my attention in late summer that all (Spanish-speaking) traffic clients were set on a certain day and ICE was there,” Moore said. “I asked ‘why is ICE there? Is the DA’s Office calling ICE there?’ People were thinking they were coming to court and were taken into custody.”
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Some private-practice defense lawyers’ clients “have been yanked and put on (immigration) holds,” Moore said. That hasn’t happened to her office’s clients, she said, but some defendants represented by public defenders have been questioned by ICE agents.
ICE spokeswoman Gail Montenegro would not respond when directly questioned about who contacted ICE about these two monthly Spanish interpreter days. She also would not respond when asked why ICE agents allegedly have been coming into the Law Enforcement Center, 717 Wisconsin Ave., on those specific days to check Hispanic defendants’ immigration statuses and whether there are warrants for their arrest.
Racine County District Attorney Rich Chiapete said in an email that, “ICE has not been coming to the LEC on specific days and running names. This is inaccurate. They have come when they are aware of a specific person being in court on a specific criminal charge.”
In a follow-up interview Chiapete said, “It’s no different than any law enforcement agency showing up when they know there’s a warrant (for a specific person).”
But Racine immigration lawyer John Cabranes disagrees.
“Not true. (ICE agents) came in last week. They’re just trolling,” he said. “About 60 days ago they cleaned out about 13 people. About six of them were mine. And none of them had any warrants of any kind.”
Cabranes, a private defense lawyer, said he believes the Racine County Sheriff’s Office is working with immigration agents.
“The sheriff knows what those days are. ICE knows,” he said. ICE agents “show up with a list of people and take ’em all. ... It’s clear that there’s a concerted effort to go after them.”
But Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling said his office is not involved though it does provide security to the courthouse and LEC.
“This is news to me. I had no knowledge that immigration was doing this,” Schmaling said. “You’d think if that was the case, they would have asked us for assistance (picking up specific people with immigration warrants).”
Schmaling continued, “I don’t participate in running a particular race’s names to see if they’re wanted. We don’t do that.”
Sheriff’s Office deputies run everyone’s names when encountered on the road or out on a call and everyone’s names are run when booked into the jail, Schmaling said.
But, he added, “Immigration enforcement has its own unique set of challenges, especially in today’s political climate. ... I believe it’s wrong to fault immigration agents for doing their job and enforcing the present immigration laws.”
When questioned by The Journal Times, Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Gail Montenegro issued the following statement via email: “U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is focused on sensible, effective immigration enforcement that prioritizes the removal of convicted criminals, those who have been previously removed from the United States and those who have outstanding deportation orders. ICE conducts targeted enforcement efforts to focus on these stated priorities, not random sweeps or raids. The removal numbers for the Chicago ICE office reflect that focus. In fiscal year 2012, nearly 75 percent of those removed the previous year — or 7,442 — were convicted criminals, representing a 61 percent increase over the removal of convicted criminal aliens three years ago.”