Lawyers Escalate Fight to Get ICE Out of NYC Courts

Lawyers and leaders say that they will fight on with protests and sit-ins until ICE is kept away from the courts. (Photo provided to El Diario)

Ever since President Donald Trump took office, the Big Apple has tried to remain a “sanctuary city” by protecting undocumented people. However, the presence of “la migra” in the city and state’s courts continues to be its Achilles’ heel in that struggle.

The proof is in the more than 175 arrests of immigrants carried out in the last 16 months at New York courts, 25 of them in 2018 and three of these last week at the Brooklyn, Bronx and Queens courts.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has said publicly that it plans to continue detaining individuals in the areas surrounding courts if necessary, and advocates and activists fear more arrests. As part of their strategy, they plan to continue staging protests, sit-ins and filing complaints to demand the end of the presence of federal agents in courts.

Alexi Shalom, an organizer with the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys – which gathers hundreds of lawyers – said that they will not ease their protests and demands until New York guarantees that courts will be considered sensitive locations to forbid ICE from entering, the way schools and hospitals are.

“We continue working to ask the state’s highest-ranking judge, Janet DiFiore, to put a stop to ICE though an administrative order that prohibits their access to court property,” said Shalom, who criticized DiFiore’s position. Although the judge has said that she will keep asking ICE to treat all courts as sensitive locations, she warned that she cannot do anything to prevent federal agents from carrying out arrests there, and that such a prohibition would be illegal.

For its part, “la migra” insists on defending its actions, saying that it shows up at courts to protect public safety, as undocumented people with a criminal record may end up representing a serious threat if the protection provided by “sanctuary cities” prevents them from being handed over to ICE.

The Association of Legal Aid Attorneys representative also called on immigrants who have pending cases to contact a lawyer who can assess the risk before showing up in court.

“Many people are afraid, and that is understandable. However, at the end of the day, attorneys are professionals who know how to handle these situations,” said the activist, who also asked the city to guarantee due process for people seeking legal assistance, not just by disbursing more funds for free lawyers and educating immigrants about their rights in court, but also by extending aid to those people who have committed one of the 170 crimes for which the de Blasio administration will collaborate with “la migra.”

“ICE is out of control”

Council member Ydanis Rodríguez, one of the most active politicians in the fight against ICE’s presence in courts, said that he has asked the state’s Office of Court Administration to use its power to halt the agency but they have the final say.

“We ask Judge DiFiore to side with our people, to protect us and to use her position to prevent ICE from splitting any more working families,” said the Manhattan politician, adding that he fears the situation will get worse.

“ICE is out of control in this city, and we need leaders at all levels to prevent it from being in the courts. We are in the midst of something akin to Hurricane María, and we are going to have to brace and protect ourselves because I do not think the attacks will subside,” added Rodríguez. He also said that he expects the budget currently being discussed by the City Council to increase funding for free lawyers.

For his part, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. criticized ICE’s presence in courts and stressed that the agency’s actions undermine federal law itself, which states that all New Yorkers, documented or not, have a right to fair and accessible courts.

Vance added that, by increasing its interventions in courts, “la migra” is sacrificing the safety of the city and its residents.

“When the fear of deportation prevents victims and witnesses from appearing in court, all New Yorkers are less safe,” said the district attorney, who reiterated his commitment to fight for undocumented people. “I want to let New York immigrants know that we are here to protect their safety and their rights, and that they may report crimes without fear of being deported.”

Brooklyn District Attorney Eric González joined the appeal and not only pointed out that his county has adopted proactive measures to protect immigrants who must appear in court, but also directly criticized ICE’s policies and asked all elected officials and local authorities to unite in one voice against the “wrongful policies” of the White House.

“The current compliance actions ICE is carrying out in courts put public safety in jeopardy by forcing immigrants to be in the shadows, interrupting court procedures and depriving the accused of due process and the victims of their fair trials,” said González.

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