New York City Council Members Target a Local ICE Director

New York City Council members Carlos Menchaca and Speaker Corey Johnson at an event in September 2019. (Credit: Official NYC Council Photo by William Alatriste)


Will ICE officials who have vigorously enforced Donald Trump’s immigration policies turn around and enthusiastically work for Joe Biden’s? Some Democrats doubt it, including two in New York City who are already urging the new administration to start cleaning house.

On the day he was appointed, two New York City Council leaders called on the new Homeland Security secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, to remove an Immigrations and Customs Enforcement field director from his post, citing his handling of local operations.

In a letter Tuesday, Corey Johnson, the City Council Speaker, and Council member Carlos Menchaca, the Immigration Committee chair, wrote Mayorkas urging him to oust Thomas Decker, who oversees New York City ICE’s field office. Since January 2017, Decker has directed ICE’s operations in all five boroughs and nine surrounding counties. According to an ICE spokesman, Decker has been with the former Immigration and Naturalization Service and ICE, which was created as part of the DHS in 2003, for 28 years.

“Director Decker has led an ICE field office whose Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) agents routinely engage in dangerous, discriminatory, and legally dubious enforcement activities,” Johnson and Menchaca wrote to Mayorkas, who the Senate approved on Tuesday. “Just as we will hold to account the architects of the previous Administration’s destructive immigration policies, we must also hold to account those who so zealously implemented them.”

Alejandro Mayorkas was sworn in as the Department of Homeland Security secretary under President Joe Biden on Feb. 2. (Credit: Department of Homeland Security photo by Benjamin Applebaum)

ICE deferred questions about Johnson and Menchaca’s letter to DHS, which responded in an email saying the Department “regularly receives and welcomes correspondence from leaders and advocates across the nation. We continue to work toward reforming the immigration system to ensure that it is upholding American values while keeping our communities safe.” *

The city leaders said Decker could not act “in good faith” on President Joe Biden’s executive order and a subsequent DHS memo that reversed Trump policies, which in general sought to increase removal of people who are in the country illegally. They emphasized Biden’s pledge to create “a more fair and humane immigration framework.”

The new administration has called for immigration enforcement to prioritize detaining people in the country illegally only if they posed national security threats, were apprehended at the border or ports of entry, or have been convicted of certain felonies. Additionally, Biden has issued a 100-day pause on deportations, though a federal judge in Texas on Jan. 26 issued a two-week hold on Biden’s order.

This court battle has complicated ICE’s detention of Bronx resident Javier Castillo Maradiaga, 27, whose deportation to Honduras was halted last Friday, as Johnson and Menchaca noted in their letter.

ICE Field Director Thomas Decker, far left, stands next to ICE’s acting director, Matthew Albence, second from left, at a press conference on Jan. 17, 2020. (Credit: ICE Twitter)

On Tuesday, Castillo Maradiaga was granted a 30-day stay of removal and returned from a detention center in Louisiana, said Rebecca Press, who represents him as an attorney at UnLocal, a New York immigration legal services nonprofit. As of Wednesday, ICE was holding him at the Hudson County Jail in New Jersey. Emmanuel Pardilla, a spokesman for UnLocal, said Castillo Maradiaga has a custody status review scheduled for Feb. 11.

In a Zoom call Wednesday evening, Press said Castillo Maradiaga has lived in the U.S. since he was seven years old, and was formerly protected under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama-era program that shields from deportation undocumented immigrants brought into the country as children. He let his status expire in 2019, before New York police officers arrested him for jaywalking, subsequently adding other charges, and handed him to ICE, Press told NPR. Although the charges were dismissed—including the charges beyond jaywalking that hadn’t been disclosed—he’s been in custody for 14 months.

In their letter, Johnson and Menchaca also pointed to other actions under Decker’s leadership, including early morning raids in immigrant neighborhoods, often, they wrote, done without warrants. They also claimed Decker’s agents flouted ICE policies of not entering “sensitive locations,” such as hospitals, schools, or places of worship. Specifically, they cited an incident on Feb. 6, 2020, when an ICE agent shot a 26-year-old tourist with a visa in the face in Gravesend, Brooklyn, as agents sought to arrest another man. The tourist was then held by ICE in a Maimonides Hospital room, according to a City Council report. ICE said in a statement that agents had been “physically attacked while attempting to arrest” the other man, an account that local activists disputed, according to the New York Daily News.

This story was updated to include a late reply from the Department of Homeland Security.