ICE Arrests Have Surged at Queens Courts, Report Reveals

ICE agents make an arrest outside the Queens County criminal court on Jan. 16. Photo courtesy of the Immigrant Defense Project

ICE agents make an arrest outside the Queens County criminal court on Jan. 16. Photo courtesy of the Immigrant Defense Project

By David Brand

On Jan. 16, attorneys sent a photo of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents arresting a man on the 82nd Street side of Queens Criminal Court to the Eagle. In November 2018, a widely shared cellphone video showed plainclothes ICE agents dragging a man away from the steps of the Kew Gardens courthouse.  

Defense attorneys and immigrants rights advocates have long reported that such courthouse ICE arrests were surging in Queens and elsewhere in New York; now the data backs them up.

The Immigrant Defense Project (IDP) released a report Monday that revealed a 1700 percent increase in ICE arrests in and around New York courthouses between 2016 and 2018. The report, entitled “The Courthouse Trap: How ICE Operations Impacted New York’s Courts in 2018” also found that arrests rose 17 percent in 2018 compared to 2017.  

IDP documented 202 courthouse ICE arrests statewide in 2018, with Queens and Brooklyn accounting for the highest number of arrests in the state — there were 33 documented arrests outside Queens courthouses and 35 outside Brooklyn courthouses last year.

“This report shows that ICE is expanding surveillance and arrests in courthouses across the state, creating a crisis for immigrants who need access to the courts. We cannot allow ICE to turn New York’s courts into traps for immigrants,” said IDP Executive Director Alisa Wellek. “The New York State legislature must act now to pass the Protect Our Courts Act to prevent ICE from continuing these harmful practices.”

The IDP report states that ICE engaged in duplicitous behavior to make arrests and “routinely ignored its own regulations, which require that they answer basic questions about their identity and provide information justifying arrests.”

Most arrests were made by plainclothes ICE agents, IDP said.

ICE also routinely uses “administrative warrants” to make arrests. The warrants are not signed by a judge, do not necessarily name a suspect and are in fact issued by the agency itself.

Immigrant advocates say the mere prospect of ICE’s presence near the court discourages people from showing up, complicating their cases and potentially jamming the justice system.

“Our clients are coming to the Queens Criminal Court to handle their criminal cases and abide by their court orders and ICE is interfering with that in an astounding way,” Queens Law Associates Supervising Immigration Attorney Josh Epstein told the Eagle after the Jan. 16 arrest. “Not only does that prevent folks from engaging in their criminal cases but it sets a great fear in the community.”

ICE spokeswoman Rachael Yong Yow said ICE does not keep statistics about the number of courthouse-specific arrests. The arrests made inside and outside of courthouses are legal under ICE policy, Yong Yow said.

“ICE officers in New York perform their lawful duties of enforcing the immigration laws of this nation with integrity and pride,” she said. “These men and women will continue to enforce the laws set forth by Congress as part of their civic duty, despite any criticism or political rhetoric.”

The IDP report was released two days after the immigration news website Documented revealed that state court officers helped ICE agents make arrests in New York City courts on at least six occasions. Court officers’ Unusual Occurrence Reports, obtained via a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request, detailed how court officers contacted ICE agents to tell them when individuals whom ICE targeted for arrest arrived at court.

“We have to preserve safety. By cooperating with ICE, and working with ICE, we’re able to accomplish that, so nobody gets hurt. When they start pouncing on [targets] in the hallway, that’s worse. It’s much better when people are taken discreetly,” New York Supreme Court Officers Association President Dennis Quirk told Documented.

The state Office of Court Administration (OCA) enacted a policy in early 2018 as a response to rising arrests that requires ICE agents to check-in with court personnel and inform them why they are there. Agents are not allowed to make arrests in courtrooms, but are allowed in the courthouse Hallways, OCA said.

“In January of 2018, as a direct result of our communications with ICE officials on the national and regional levels, ICE issued a formalized policy regarding potential arrest situations in courthouses,” a spokesperson for OCA told the Eagle. “Their new policy, particularly regarding non-criminal courthouses and court proceedings, effectively acknowledged that they will limit themselves to criminal proceedings. Agents showing up in courthouses increasingly have been effecting arrests with Judicial warrants.”

“Additionally, as a result of our continued communication with them, they have effectively changed their tactics shying away from making arrests inside court facilities,” the spokesperson continued. “Arrests inside of courthouses declined by over 50 percent from 2017 to 2018 from 40 to 13 in New York City and 54 to 26 statewide.”

A spokesperson for Queens District Attorney Richard A. Brown issued the following response:

“Despite the public attention, there have been relatively few instances of ICE making arrests in and around the courthouse,” the spokesperson said. “As far as making arrests in the courthouse, ICE agents appears to be complying with the court directive of identifying themselves to court personnel and stating their purpose.”

Every candidate for the Democratic nomination for Queens DA has criticized ICE’s presence in and around the courthouse, but one has gone a step further.

Public defender Tiffany Cabán, who kicked off her candidacy for Queens County District Attorney on Saturday, explicitly stated that she would prosecute ICE agents who overstep the agency’s regulations and break state and city law.

“DA Cabán will prosecute ICE agents who exceed their authority and endanger our communities under all of New York's relevant statutes and ordinances. Abusive conduct by ICE illegal under New York law will be prosecuted,” her official platform states.

ICE did not comment on Cabán’s platform.

Cabán’s campaign team believes she is the first DA candidate in the U.S. to pledge to prosecute ICE agents — which depends on police first arresting ICE agents — but she is not the first New York candidate to discuss the radical step.

Zephyr Teachout pledged to prosecute ICE during her campaign for the Democratic nomination for New York State Attorney General. Teachout lost the primary election but her anti-ICE message resounded with many immigrants rights advocates.

“As a community organization that sees every day the atrocities that ICE is perpetrating against immigrants, we think it’s absolutely critical that every Attorney General candidate commits to reining in this rogue agency, which we believe should be abolished,” Make the Road New York co-executive director Javier H. Valdés told Rewire.

Additional reporting by Rob Abruzzese.