Last month, the Immigrant Defense Project published a report outlining the continued increase in courthouse arrests by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. The report, “The Courthouse Trap: How ICE Operations Impacted New York’s Courts in 2018,” revealed that ICE conducted 178 arrests at courthouses across the state last year — a drastic increase over the 11 arrests the agency made in 2016.
Immigration advocates have condemned ICE’s action in New York, and State Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages, of Elmont, has reintroduced a bill that would require ICE agents to obtain a judicial warrant for such courthouse arrests. In a news conference earlier this month, Solages explained that the measure was necessary, because the arrests have had a “chilling effect” in the immigrant community: Undocumented immigrants have been too afraid to appear in court or to contact law enforcement.
“As fewer individuals feel safe interacting with the justice system, fearing potential implications for themselves, friends or family,” Solages said, “it becomes all the more challenging to promote public safety.”
A 2017 survey conducted by the IDP noted that 75 percent of legal service providers in New York state had clients who were afraid to go to court because of ICE, and 29 percent had clients who refused to appear. Immigration lawyer Elise Damas, of Hempstead’s Central American Refugee Center, told the Herald that last year, one of her clients refused to go to court to pick up some papers without her by his side.
The man wanted to pick up his certificate of disposition from the Town of Hempstead courthouse, just a few blocks from Damas’s office. She explained to him that he didn’t need representation to do so, but he pleaded for a lawyer to be with him anyway. “He said, ‘No, I can’t go by myself because I hear they’re arresting everyone,” Damas recounted.
Although a majority of the courthouse arrests took place in New York City, there were seven arrests at courthouses on Long Island last year, according to the IDP report. The report also described ICE agents wearing civilian clothing and driving unmarked cars when they made arrests, a practice that has confused passersby at courthouses, reportedly moving them to call 911, believing they’ve witnessed a kidnapping.
New York ICE Public Affairs Officer Rachael Yong Yow explained that ICE’s recent step-up of courthouse arrests was not part of any new policy, and ensured the safety of ICE agents because “individuals entering courthouses are typically screened by law enforcement personnel … for weapons and other contraband.” She added that courthouse arrests were necessary in jurisdictions, like New York City, that fail to cooperate with ICE in the transfer of undocumented immigrants. ICE stated on its website that the rise of sanctuary cities was the primary reason why courthouse arrests have increased in the past two years.
But immigration advocates said that the practice has caused serious consequences across the state. Elizabeth Tonne-Daims, an immigration unit attorney for the Legal Aid Society of Nassau County, said she had heard stories from her colleagues in New York City in the past year about clients who were too afraid to testify against abusers because they were afraid of being arrested.
Silvia Pastor-Finkelstein, director of immigrant affairs for the Nassau County district attorney’s office, said that similar incidences were happening in Nassau. Although she would not name any victims, she said that one woman had received threats from her alleged abuser and his family to stay away from courts and law enforcement or risk deportation.
Pastor-Finkelstein added that her office’s hotline had received more than 70 calls in 2016, but only a handful of calls in the two years since. The spread of fear-inducing rhetoric and policies that scare undocumented immigrants away from the D.A.’s and other law enforcement offices, she added, allow abusers to take advantage of the immigrant community. “It’s a case of society giving criminals the tools to continue their crimes,” she said.
Earlier this month, Solages and fellow Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees ICE, asking it to curb arrests in New York’s courthouses. By interrupting people’s day in court and scaring them from even attending, Solages said, ICE’s policy is effectively interfering with their Fourth Amendment protection from unreasonable searches and seizures.
“Every person in America has the right to due process…but this administration’s use of ICE as a blunt tool is treading on the Constitution of the state and federal government,” she said.