Escalating hostilities

Unusual arrest follows pattern of Trump ratcheting up tensions with political opponents in California

This is an extended version of a story that appears in the August 30, 2018, issue.

Yovanny Ontiveros-Cebreros walked into Sacramento County’s courthouse last week a free man meeting a legal obligation. The undocumented 38-year-old departed in handcuffs, a prisoner of the Trump administration’s war on California.

This is believed to be the first time the president’s deportation force has arrested an undocumented immigrant inside a Sacramento courtroom, rattling the state capital and serving as a reminder that Donald Trump enjoys showy displays of power.

Ontiveros-Cebreros was facing one federal count of possession of a controlled substance intended for sale, online court records show. Following his August 22 arraignment in Sacramento Superior Court, attorney Charles Anthony Pacheco said two men who were “dressed like bums” approached the bar that separates members of the public from court officers and defendants, and announced they were U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents there to arrest Ontiveros-Cebreros on a federal warrant for illegal reentry into the United States.

“That was 14 years ago,” Pacheco said. “He’s been here 14 years.”

That doesn’t matter to ICE. Shortly after Trump took office, he put the agency under revised marching orders to arrest every undocumented immigrant it encounters in the United States. ICE responded by going on the offensive, staking out schools, churches and other “sensitive locations,” a sharp departure from policies implemented during the Obama administration.

Last March, California Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye made a public plea for federal officials to rein in immigration agents from “stalking undocumented immigrants in our courthouses to make arrests.” Instead of heeding that request, last week’s arrest is another example that Trump feeds his grudges with political opponents.

Prior to his arraignment, Ontiveros-Cebreros had posted $115,000 bail, Pacheco says, meaning his client was not in custody when he appeared for a scheduled morning arraignment. Pacheco says he showed up early for court as he typically does to review paperwork and found no warrants associated with his client.

In 2002, Ontiveros-Cebreros was sentenced to five years in state prison, after pleading no contest to felony counts of conspiring to commit a crime and transporting or selling methamphetamine, online court records show. In 2016, a misdemeanor domestic battery conviction got him 30 days on the Sheriff’s Work Project and three years on formal probation.

Ontiveros-Cebreros is currently residing in the main jail downtown on a federal immigration hold. His next court appearance on the drug charge is scheduled for September 19.

On Monday, Pacheco was still upset about what unfolded.

“These ICE guys had no uniform, no insignia. They just looked like a couple of guys off the street,” Pacheco told SN&R. “They were trying to blend in. They were trying to look like criminal defendants; they looked worse than the defendants.”

Pacheco says that if the agents had a warrant for his client, they could have arrested him outside the courtroom once the hearing was over. He noted that there’s only one door in and out for defendants who are not being held at the jail, so his client wasn’t an escape risk. Pacheco contended the ICE agents approached the bench “to make a spectacle.”

“That’s what it was—a show,” he added.

Infiltrating courtrooms has far-reaching consequences, Pacheco and immigration experts say. Immigrant communities are already reluctant to participate with the criminal justice system because they fear bringing unwanted attention to themselves or members of their community. Pacheco says he was recently told of an undocumented man had been the victim of a violent home invasion, but wouldn’t report the crime because he feared being deported.

“He was beat to hell,” Pacheco said of the victim.

The surprise apprehension of Ontiveros-Cebreros comes amid ongoing protests outside of a federal immigration building on Capitol Mall, and follows a mini-pattern where top officials come to the state most opposed to their policies and instigate conflict. In March, it was Attorney General Jeff Sessions announcing a federal lawsuit aimed at California’s so-called sanctuary legislation during an appearance in Sacramento.

No one has been safe from the White House’s wide net—not Dreamers, not law-abiding immigrants and, as the world recently learned, not children snatched from their mothers’ arms.

Pacheco says the Judicial Branch of California, which oversees the nation’s largest court system, needs to develop a policy regarding ICE agents in court. Until that happens, the local attorney says he already knows what he’s going to tell future clients. He’ll tell them there are legal consequences for missing court appearances.

“But if you show up, this is going to be the consequence as well,” he added.