DAs, Lawmakers And Advocates Rally to Freeze ICE Out of NY Courts

Demonstrators protest ICE courthouse arrests in Downtown Brooklyn. Photo courtesy of the Immigrant Defense Project.

Demonstrators protest ICE courthouse arrests in Downtown Brooklyn. Photo courtesy of the Immigrant Defense Project.

By David Brand

Three New York City District Attorneys joined local lawmakers and immigrants rights advocates at Judson Memorial Church in Manhattan to support legislation banning Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents from prowling New York courts and making arrests without a judicial warrant.

ICE arrests inside and around New York courthouses increased by 1700 percent between 2016 and 2018, according to a report by the Immigrant Defense Project. Queens and Brooklyn account for the highest number of courthouse ICE arrests in the state, the report reveals.

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez and Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark all said they support the Protect Our Courts Act, which would prevent ICE agents from arresting people inside New York State courthouses or when they are on their way to or from court without a judicial warrant or court order. ICE agents currently justify arrests by using “administrative warrants” that are not signed by a judge, do not necessarily name a suspect and are issued by the agency itself.

“ICE enforcement activity at city courts undermines our justice system and creates fear within immigrant communities,” said Councilmember Rory Lancman, a candidate for Queens DA, who attended the event. “We won't have a system of justice if people are afraid to come and be a part of that system.”

Queens DA Richard A. Brown and Staten Island DA Michael McMahon have not publicly supported the bill.

Assemblymember Michaelle Solages and State Sen. Brad Hoylman announced that they would reintroduce the Protect Our Courts Act in order to stem the fear of deportation among individuals and families involved with the criminal justice system. That fear discourages non-citizens from appearing in court, which leads to danger, complicates their cases and slows the justice system.

“Our judicial system is based on equity and equal accessibility to justice. Changes by federal agencies regarding the enforcement of federal immigration law have instilled significant fear in immigrant communities across New York State,” Solages said in a statement. “As fewer individuals feel safe interacting with the justice system, fearing potential implications for themselves, friends or family, it becomes all the more challenging to promote public safety.”

Manhattan DA Cy Vance said that arresting and deporting New Yorkers who show up to court dates threatens community safety.

“When fear of deportation prevents victims and witnesses from coming forward, or deters defendants from responsibly attending their court dates, our justice system is less effective, and our city is less safe,” Vance said.

Clark said the prospect of ICE’s presence motivates non-citizen witnesses to avoid courthouses.

“Arrests by Immigration and Customs Enforcement could have a chilling effect on getting witnesses to assist in our cases, potentially resulting in a threat to public safety,” Clark said.

Demonstrators included representatives from the Immigrant Defense Project, The Bronx Defenders, The Legal Aid Society, Make the Road New York, Sanctuary for Families, Anti-Defamation League and various labor unions.

“ICE’s presence in New York’s courts is jeopardizing our criminal justice system and putting everyone in our state at risk,” said IDP Executive Director Alisa Wellek. “ICE agents have been operating outside the guidelines the agency has set for itself and we desperately need a law that makes it clear that victims, witnesses and defendants have the right to a fair day in court. That is the just thing to do and a necessary step to restore faith in our court system.”