SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly have defended federal agents who make immigration arrests at courthouses after California's top judge asked them to stop, according to a letter released Friday.
Sessions and Kelly sent the letter Wednesday to California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, saying state and city policies barring local law enforcement from turning over suspects for deportation have compelled federal agents to arrest immigrants at courthouses and other public places.
Courthouses are a safe place for federal agents to make the arrests because visitors are typically screened for weapons, the letter says.
"While these law enforcement personnel will remain mindful of concerns by the public and governmental stakeholders regarding enforcement activities, they will continue to take prudent and reasonable actions within their lawful authority to achieve that mission," it says.
The response comes amid a feverish debate nationwide over the relationship between local law enforcement and immigration officials. Many counties and cities have refused to collaborate with immigration authorities after President Donald Trump signed executive orders to step up deportations.
In response, the administration has warned that those jurisdictions run the risk of losing federal funding.
Cantil-Sakauye, who was appointed by former Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, asked federal officials to stop making immigration arrests at California courthouses, saying officers' practice of "stalking" immigrants was thwarting justice.
In their reply, Sessions and Kelly took issue with Cantil-Sakauye's accusation, writing that "stalking" is a crime where a victim is being followed or harassed.
"The arrest of persons in a public place based upon probable cause has long been held by the United States Supreme Court as constitutionally permissible," they wrote.
Cantil-Sakauye said Friday she was disappointed that courthouses would not be added to the list of "sensitive areas" where immigration officials don't make deportation arrests. They include schools, churches and hospitals.
"I appreciate the prompt letter and their admission that they are in state courthouses making federal arrests," Cantil-Sakauye said in a statement. "However, making arrests at courthouses, in my view, undermines public safety because victims and witnesses will fear coming to courthouses to help enforce the law."
Without witness and victim testimony as evidence, dangerous suspects could go free, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon said. He said local policies protecting immigrants aren't to blame and urged federal officials to get a warrant to make immigration arrests.
"The idea that entering courthouses to make immigration related arrests somehow enhances public safety is disturbingly backwards," Gascon said in a statement.
Associated Press writer Amy Taxin contributed to this report.