Angela España with her two US citizen children.  Angela was detained and placed in deportation proceedings after she came to the Milwaukee County Courthouse to support her mother, who had a hearing that day. (Photo: Voces de la Frontera)

According to multiple community members and media reports, federal immigration officials in plain clothes have been routinely questioning people they suspect of being undocumented in county courthouses in Racine, Ozaukee, Walworth, and Milwaukee counties, detaining them, and placing them in deportation proceedings.

Without identifying themselves as federal agents, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers have been questioning people about their immigration status, and sometimes detaining people appearing in court for minor traffic violations, as well as family court.  

In one instance, ICE agents detained a woman with no criminal record who was accompanying her mother at a hearing.

By making immigrants afraid to go to court or contact law enforcement, these practices undermine public safety when people are afraid to report crimes as victims or witnesses or are denied protections from the court from cases such as domestic violence. This is a violation of human and constitutional rights, regardless of immigration status. By making people afraid to appear in court, these practices jeopardize immigration status and hope of legalizing in the future.


One of those detained recently was José Calderon, a Voces member from Milwaukee, who was in the Ozaukee County Courthouse on July 8th of this past year, for a hearing concerning driving without a license. Aside from two citations for driving without a license, Mr. Calderon has no criminal record. He has lived in Milwaukee since 1997, and is married with two young U.S. citizen children.

“ICE and the Sheriff’s department were working very closely,” said Mr. Calderon’s attorney, who wished to remain anonymous. “As people were leaving their hearings, a sheriff’s deputy would step in and say ‘Immigration would like to have a word with you.’”

Five or six other people were detained along with Mr. Calderon that day, all Latinos. “All the other people detained with me also were in court for driving without a license,” said Mr. Calderon.

“ICE agents were in the Ozaukee County Courthouse on July 8,” said Captain Jeff Taylor of the Ozaukee County Sheriff’s Department.  When asked specifically how the Sheriff’s Department cooperated with ICE that day, Mr. Taylor replied, “I’m sure they assisted in any way they could, but I don’t think Ozaukee County Sheriff’s deputies alerted ICE that particular people may not have had immigration papers.”

Jose Calderon license to dream

Voces member José Calderon speaking at an immigration reform rally last summer.  José was detained by ICE at the Ozaukee County Courthouse on July 8th, 2013.  (Photo: Voces de la Frontera)


After Mr. Calderon paid his traffic fine, two ICE agents in plainclothes and a sheriff’s deputy stopped him. They brought him to another room in the courthouse, where three ICE agents were holding the others.

The agents refused to allow Mr. Calderon’s immigration lawyer to be present while Mr. Calderon and the other detained people were being questioned. When Mr. Calderon’s lawyer persisted in trying to protect him, ICE agents threatened to charge him with ‘obstructing an officer’.

“I think the interrogation was illegal,” the attorney said.

In Milwaukee County, ICE has targeted spectators in the county courthouse. ICE agents detained Voces member Angela España and placed her in deportation proceedings after she came to the Milwaukee County Courthouse to support her mother, who had a hearing that day.

“They asked me my name and didn’t let me leave.” said Mrs. España. “Then they made a phone call and after they got off the phone they said ‘you’re illegal, you’re coming with us’.”

The agents took Mrs. España to the ICE office in downtown Milwaukee, opened deportation proceedings against her, and released her that same day because she has no criminal record.

Mrs. España has lived in Milwaukee since 2005 and is married with three young, U.S. citizen children. When her husband went to the ICE office to pick her up, agents followed their car, stopped them, detained him, and placed him in deportation proceedings. He has lived in Milwaukee since 2005 and has no criminal record either.


A December Racine Journal Times article described sweeps by ICE in the Racine County Courthouse on days that Spanish interpreters are present.

“They’re just trolling,” said Racine attorney John Cabranes in the story. “About 60 days ago they cleaned out about 13 people …and none of them had any warrants of any kind.”

Whether targeting people because of their ethnicity and language as in Racine or by coming to courts to target people with hearings for minor offenses, ICE has been using county courthouses throughout southeast Wisconsin as an easy place to detain people.

The consequences for not attending a mandatory court appearance can be severe: an arrest warrant could be issued, and the person could face jail time or deportation.

According to ICE spokeswoman Gail Montenegro, ICE prioritizes the removal of immigrants who have committed crimes. When questioned via email, she did not address concerns that in southeast Wisconsin, ICE’s conduct has not been in line with the agency’s stated priorities.

Ozaukee County Clerk of Court Mary Lou Mueller did not respond to calls seeking comment, and agents in the downtown Milwaukee ICE office were unwilling to speak publicly about their practices in local courts.

In 2011, the ICE Director John Morton announced that ICE would prioritize enforcement against people who posed a national security risk or were a risk to public safety, had entered the country recently, were fugitives, or were people who “otherwise obstruct immigration controls.”

Later that year Morton wrote another memo instructing immigration prosecutors to use their discretion to administratively close deportation cases of people who do not fit the agency’s priorities. Those priorities were left intentionally broad enough to allow ICE to continue mass deportations.

According to data released by the Department of Justice, only 6.6% of all resolved immigration cases have been closed through prosecutorial discretion since the policy was announced, and cases continue against people like Mr. Calderon and Mrs. España, who do not fit ICE’s announced priorities.

In 2009, Senator Byrd of West Virginia inserted language into a bill funding the Department of Homeland Security (of which ICE is a part) requiring the federal government to hold in detention at least 34,000 immigrants at any given time, regardless of the facts of their cases.

This quota has nothing to do with public safety or national security, but rather is driven by the successful lobbying efforts of local governments and private prison corporations that profit from federal contracts to imprison immigrants. While the government cuts funding to social programs, ICE continues to spend tax dollars to imprison and deport immigrant workers who have committed civil immigration violations.

By March of this year, the Obama administration will have deported 2 million people.

According to data released by ICE, between 2010 and 2012, 204,810 parents of U.S. citizen children were deported. Extrapolated over the president’s entire term in office, it is likely that the President Obama has been responsible for deporting over 500,000 parents of U.S. citizens like Mr. Calderon and Mrs. España.


In advance of your court date, talk to an attorney about the possibility of negotiating your charges down so you are not required to appear in court. In court, unless a judge is talking to you in the courtroom, you are not required to answer any questions regarding your immigration status or your country of origin.

Officers may be in plain clothes and act as if they are ordinary citizens.

If someone approaches you and asks your name, politely say that you are in a courthouse, and you do not answer questions unless your attorney is present.

Even if they say they are with a police agency, you are not required to answer them.

If they say they are from a law enforcement agency, request to see their credentials and ask if they have an arrest warrant. If they say they do have an arrest warrant demand to see it. If they do not produce it, say that you are free to leave and walk away.

If you are detained by ICE or the local police you do not have to answer any questions without a lawyer present. Every person detained by ICE is provided a 9 digit number, known as an “alien number.” It is very important to obtain this number and provide it to your family and/or attorney.

“Courts should be a safe place for people complying with or seeking protection from the legal system,” said Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of Voces de la Frontera.

“The courts should also be considered a protected zone or “sensitive location” just like churches, schools and hospitals are treated.  Voces is committed to informing the affected community about their rights and to challenge this abuse.”

If you or someone you know has been stopped or questioned by ICE, contact Voces de la Frontera for assistance at 414-643-1620 or vdlf@vdlf.org.