New York Fights to Protect Immigrants by Keeping ICE from Patrolling Courts

Council Member Menchaca discussing the Protect Our Courts Act at the City Hall.

Last July, Miriam Martinez’s husband, Plutarco Ramirez was whisked away by immigration officials at a courthouse in New York. He was arrested after being falsely charged with a crime that was later dropped.

“His detention drastically shifted my everyday life, for the first time my family was torn apart,” said Martinez in her emotional testimony at a hearing held in April at the City Council that called on the state legislature to sign the “Protect Our Courts Act,” a bill introduced in the state senate in January intended to protect immigrants from civil arrest during court proceedings and to address the fear they face of getting arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials if they show up in courthouses for other matters.

City council members are still pushing to get the legislation passed and signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, but it has stalled in Albany. Yet, this past week the debate gained new momentum when Massachusetts joined the fray.  The state’s district attorneys and public defenders filed a lawsuit against ICE on Monday to stop Immigration and Customs Enforcement from patrolling state courthouses. The lawsuit alleges that criminal defendants, witnesses and civil litigants have all been affected by the agency’s policy, thereby impeding court business.

Meanwhile, on the federal front, the situation for undocumented immigrants is getting more difficult. President Donald Trump announced in early April that he was withdrawing his nomination for the permanent director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement in order to take the agency in a “tougher direction.”

“Trump’s vision is not to protect the foundation of American democracy. He’s trying to destroy it,” said City Council Member Carlos Menchaca in an interview to NYCityLens.  He is among the sponsors of the Protect Our Courts Act. “At the city level we are trying to do whatever it takes to protect our community from what is happening in the federal government.”

Under the Trump administration, undocumented immigrants can be arrested at any time while going to court, leaving it or inside it. Out of fear that they might get arrested or ultimately deported, many immigrants, their friends and family members, like Martinez, are often discouraged to report crimes and are afraid to engage with the court system.  That’s the basis for the bill before the New York state legislature: the unchecked interference of ICE in the state court system endangers New Yorkers’ access to due process and public safety. The bill would stop this by prohibiting arrests in areas surrounding state courthouses, including sidewalks and parking lots.

If passed, this legislation would expand a directive issued on April 17 from the New York State Office of Court Administration barring ICE agents from arresting immigrants in New York Courthouses without a judicial warrant. Therefore, immigration officials will be prevented from entering court buildings if they only have an administrative ICE warrant.

From 2017 to 2018, ICE operations in and around the courts have continued to increase, keeping arrests at an unprecedented level. These operations increased by 17 percent compared to 2017 and by an astounding 1,700 percent compared to 2016, according to data released earlier this year by The Immigrant Defense Project, a non-profit organization which leads an activist campaign to get ICE Out of Courts in New York State.

The report by The Immigrant Defense Project, quantified that New York City accounted for 75 percent of ICE courthouse interactions between 2016 and 2018, with Queens and Brooklyn reporting the largest numbers of courthouse arrests and sightings of ICE officers.

The presence of ICE in New York courthouses, say public officials, public defenders and immigrants, is a tactic being used by the Trump administration to terrorize the immigrant community and undermine immigrants’ right to access the judicial system. They hope the act before the state legislature here in New York will resolve this.

“The Protect the Courts Act will help mitigate arrests outside the courts, require immigration agents to show judicial warrants before arresting someone,” said Martinez in her testimony at the City Council. “It will help people not be afraid to go to court, which can be risky for their cases.”

Advocates for protection in courts have evidence to support their viewpoint. In a cellphone video that went viral in early March, Bryan MacCromach, the 30-year-old executive director of a nonprofit organization defending immigrants, prevented the arrest of two undocumented immigrants while driving them to from court in Hudson, N.Y. This video initiated a stronger push to an existing conversation among immigrants, advocates, attorneys and legislators, regarding the importance of knowing and defending constitutional rights. And that’s exactly why many New York City Council members are pushing the state legislature to pass the bill.

“That’s what this law is about,” said Menchaca. “It’s about how we as a city and our community can come together and support our immigrant neighbors.”