PORTLAND, Maine — Four years ago, a Somali-born immigrant named Abdi Ali was arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials at a Cumberland County courthouse, where he’d come to plead not guilty to a drunken driving charge.
According to a new policy by the Biden administration, those kinds of arrests won’t happen again.
On Tuesday, the Biden administration issued a policy that narrows the immigrants that ICE and U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers can arrest at courthouses, a policy that drew widespread criticism during the Trump presidency.
“There’s a very real fear for a lot of people, especially those who are undocumented, of being arrested at the courthouse,” said Philip Mantis, legal director for the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, or ILAP.
Noting that such arrests took place more often in other U.S. states than Maine, Mantis called the policy shift “a step in the right direction,” adding that there was more that the Biden administration could do to reduce consequences for undocumented people navigating immigration law.
The new policy will allow ICE officers to make civil immigration arrests in and around courthouses only in national security matters or in hot pursuit during a public safety threat or risk of imminent harm. They can also make arrests if it appears that evidence in a criminal case will be destroyed.
“The courthouse is a place where the law is interpreted, applied, and justice is to be done. As law enforcement officers and public servants, we have a special responsibility to ensure that access to the courthouse — and therefore access to justice, safety for crime victims, and equal protections under the law — is preserved,” the policy reads.
In 2017, Abdi Ali’s arrest roused many members of the Maine legal community, including the ACLU, to denounce the policy as a misuse of the justice system.
“What it will hopefully do is allow our clients to feel a bit easier knowing they can go to court and not feel like they’re going to be arrested for something not related to why they’re in court that day,” Mantis said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated who Philip Mantis works for.