For more than a year now, Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrests at courthouses have consistently been in the news, sparking outrage from immigrant rights advocates that undocumented victims of crime risk deportation to seek help in the legal system.
ICE has an internal policy that federal agents are not allowed to arrest immigrants at "sensitive locations," and many members of the public—and press—don't seem to have a good grasp of what exactly qualifies. In reality, it's a pretty short list:
- Schools (pre-schools through higher education institutions, including vocational colleges and universities)
- Health care facilities
- Places of worship
- The site of a public ceremony, like weddings or funerals
- Public demonstrations like marches, rallies, or parades
- Domestic violence shelters—not a sensitive location, but protected by the Violence Against Women Act
That's right, undocumented immigrants are more likely to get flagged by ICE at a courthouse than Women's March 2.0.
It's important to note that ICE's own policy, not federal law, prohibits officers from arresting immigrants at rallies. ICE has made exceptions to its rule, and has said it could do so in the future. It also doesn't stop federal agents from, say, parking across the street. Even being at a sensitive location does not guarantee refuge from ICE.
So how do advocates protect those who seek services?
"Obviously when the Trump administration came, we knew what his plans were. We wanted to declare ourselves a sanctuary organization, but we didn't have anything really that would have teeth to that," Estela Ortega, executive director of El Centro de la Raza, told PubliCola.
She said leaders there consulted with attorneys after the 2016 election. And turns out, the nonprofit qualifies as a sensitive location based on the educational services it provides, like pre-school programs—putting El Centro under the category of a school.
As for the city of Seattle, a sanctuary city, officials suspect that a public event that provides services, like immigration workshops, could qualify as a public demonstration—but there's no clear answer to that. Alternatively, the best way to reduce risk from deportation is to simply protect names or ID.
How do advocates protect undocumented immigrants' private information?
City departments have a "don't ask, don't tell" policy when it comes to immigration, says Joaquin Uy, spokesperson for the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs. Staffers protect undocumented immigrants' information most effectively when they don't have any information to give. Council members in 2003 also passed legislation that barred city employees from asking about immigration status unless required by law or court order.
But local governments' need to collect demographic data to show that efforts to target diverse residents are working. It's a "delicate dance," Uy told PubliCola, between ensuring that the city's serving the communities it wants to help and protecting private information.
"People who live in the city want to know if their government is doing a good job," Uy says. "Really the best ways to do that is to gather information on the use of services from individuals within the city. That's where it gets challenging." When the city does ask about other identifiers, like country of origin or primary languages, it's through an anonymous survey.
El Centro also has the same policy and limits the data it collects from families, in case ICE were to subpoena its records. The data it does collect, Ortega says, may be stored under a different name than the program itself so that it's harder to find.
Often federal laws protecting privacy are most effective at keeping undocumented immigrants' personal information safe. Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, for example, as a legal provider has attorney-client privilege and doesn't have to worry about ICE seeking their clients' information, says executive director Jorge Baron. HIPAA rules also effectively restrict hospitals and other medical care facilities from sharing private information.
Ultimately, though, Baron says he tells undocumented immigrants they have to protect themselves—by refusing to answer questions they're not required to share.