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New law protects undocumented immigrants in court

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Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents can no longer arrest undocumented immigrants attending or leaving state and city courts without a warrant, under the newly passed Protect Our Courts Act, which Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law on Dec. 15.

The law requires ICE agents to present “sufficient evidence” for an arrest at a courthouse, which the State Office of Court Administration would review.

The legislation was introduced in the State Senate in 2018 by Brad Hoylman, a Democrat from Manhattan, and in the Assembly by Michaelle Solages, a Democrat from Elmont, to protect undocumented immigrants attending state or city court proceedings as witnesses or parties, or as family members of others involved.

“Everyone has a constitutional right to due process,” Solages said, noting that people who were trying to participate in the legal system were being arrested and deported. In 2017, she said, deportation officers tried to arrest a woman in a Queens courthouse who was believed to be the victim of human trafficking.

These types of arrests have increased 1,200 percent since President Trump took office in 2017, according to a report from the Immigration Defense Project. As a result, the report stated, 75 percent of the 225 legal services it surveyed in New York State reported that their clients had expressed a fear of going to court because of ICE, and 29 percent had clients who refused to appear.

Additionally, the report said, a fear of ICE resulted in 67 percent of abuse victims deciding not to seek help from the courts, and 46 percent saying they were afraid to serve as witnesses. Legal services that worked with tenants, meanwhile, reported that 56 percent of their clients were afraid to file housing complaints because of ICE’s presence at the courts.

In 2018, immigration lawyer Elise Damas, of Hempstead’s Central American Refugee Center, told the Herald that one of her clients refused to go to court to pick up some papers without her by his side. He wanted to pick up a certificate of disposition at the Town of Hempstead courthouse, which does not require legal representation, but he pleaded for a lawyer to go 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 courthouse arrests have taken place in New York City, according to the report, there were seven arrests at courthouses on Long Island in 2018, when ICE was arresting many undocumented immigrants outside courthouses. The report described ICE agents wearing civilian clothing and driving unmarked cars when they made arrests.

“We have stood in hallways as ICE agents have physically separated us from our clients, thrown our clients to the ground, ignored our clients’ rights, ignored our request for voluntary surrender, and refused to show us warrants about where they are taking our clients,” the IDP report reads, adding that its officials have also seen ICE agents pressuring courthouse staff to supply them with information, to give them access to nonpublic areas of courthouses and to adjust court schedules to facilitate arrests.

New York ICE Public Affairs Officer Rachael Yong Yow explained that ICE’s 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 states on its website that the rise of sanctuary cities was the primary reason why courthouse arrests have increased.

Since the bill was introduced in the State Legislature, though, Washington and Colorado have passed similar legislation barring ICE officials from making warrantless arrests in courts, and over the summer, New York State Attorney General Letitia James won a lawsuit against the Trump administration for its policy of making ICE arrests at state courthouses. That decision is now being appealed.

But José Chappa, senior policy associate for the Immigration Defense Project, said that with the recent passage of the Protect Our Courts Act, “we’re hoping that when the new year starts, this will not be an issue in New York state.”