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'They Never Showed Badges': Activists Demand Change After ICE Courthouse Arrests

Nick de la Canal
Stefania Arteaga, an activist with the ACLU of North Carolina, condemned reported ICE action at the county courthouse at a Wednesday evening news conference.

Updated 10:20 p.m.

Activists are condemning Immigration and Customs Enforcement after witnesses say at least two individuals were arrested by ICE agents at the Mecklenburg County courthouse Wednesday. It's the second time ICE agents have reportedly made arrests inside the courthouse in the past year.

Bob Trobich, a local attorney, says one of his clients Leonardo Hernandez was among those arrested at the courthouse Wednesday morning. Hernandez, who was facing charges of misdemeanor assault and second degree kidnapping, had arrived for court early, but was arrested sometime before 9 a.m., Trobich said. Trobich did not witness the arrest, but was filled in by the man’s girlfriend  

Several witnesses say another man was arrested inside the courthouse around 9:15 a.m. The man was entering courtroom 1150, accompanied by a woman, when witnesses say two men in plainclothes approached and placed the man under arrest.

"They grabbed his arms, said he was under arrest, and started to pull him out of the courthouse," said Rex Marvel, an assistant public defender who witnessed the incident, "They never showed badges. Never identified themselves."

Marvel said he pressed the men to identify who they were. One of them said they were ICE agents, as the man was pulled away in handcuffs. Trobich, who also witnessed the arrest, said the man had to be taken "forcibly."

Previous ICE courthouse arrests

ICE agents have generally stayed away from the Mecklenburg County Courthouse, local attorneys say, though courthouse arrests are not unprecedented.

A woman and her 16-year-old son were arrested by ICE agents inside the Mecklenburg County courthouse in July 2018. The woman had arrived in court for a domestic violence case involving the woman's former fiance.

The woman's defense lawyer, Lisa Diefenderfer, told NPR she feared the arrest could discourage other domestic violence victims from going to the police.

"My office has worked with domestic violence victims for years and any time there is large ICE activity, whether it's a big enforcement action or even after the last presidential election, we see a dip in the number of individuals seeking help for domestic violence issues," she said.

Activists warn of chilling effect

At a news conference held outside the county courthouse Wednesday evening, activists and local attorneys voiced similar concerns.

"You've got witnesses that are going to be scared to come to court when they hear about this," said Rod Heroy, another local attorney who witnessed one of Wednesday's arrests.

"People are not going to feel safe coming to court. People are not going to feel safe reporting crimes," local activist Jessica Contreras said. "We are encouraging elected officials to take a stand against this type of behavior."

Stefania Arteaga, with the ACLU of North Carolina, called on Superior Court Judge Robert Bell to take steps to curb ICE agents from making arrests inside the courthouse. She cited similar past efforts in New York, Denver and other cities.

"This is an outrage. This should not be happening," Arteaga said. "It's extremely upsetting the fact that we have leadership here in the district court who have done nothing."

An ICE spokesperson could not be immediately reached for comment Wednesday night.