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ICE Sued Over Courthouse Arrests By NY Attorney General, Brooklyn DA And Advocates


New York State Attorney General Letitia James, Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez and the Legal Aid Society filed two separate federal lawsuits Wednesday against Immigration and Customs Enforcement, accusing the agency of illegally arresting immigrants inside and outside courthouses.

“Unfortunately, a two-year pattern of civil immigration arrests by federal ICE agents in and around state courts has caused a major disruption to state court operations,” James said, during a press conference at Foley Square. She said ICE’s activities deter immigrants “from assisting in state and local law enforcement efforts or protecting their own rights in court” and do “more harm than good.”

In the first year after President Donald Trump took office, immigration arrests at courthouses in New York increased by 1,700 percent, according to a report by the Immigrant Defense Project. In April, New York State’s Office of Court Administration issued a new policy barring ICE from arresting anyone inside a courthouse without a warrant signed by a judge. Agents frequently arrest immigrants with what’s called an administrative warrant that requires less paperwork.

But that new state policy doesn’t block ICE from detaining immigrants outside courthouses, where much of their activity takes place, and a proposal to enact more restrictions was not passed by Albany legislators.

ICE didn’t respond directly to the lawsuit, but said its “enforcement activities at courthouses are consistent with longstanding law enforcement practices nationwide.” While its agents aren’t allowed to make arrests in sensitive locations, such as schools, houses of worship and hospitals unless they have prior approval from a supervisor, courthouses are not considered sensitive locations because they’re public buildings.

The agency has also noted that it’s easier and safer for its agents to arrest people at courthouses, which typically screen visitors for weapons, when jurisdictions (including New York City) limit cooperation with ICE by jails and police.

The Attorney General and the Brooklyn DA’s lawsuit cites a 2018 ICE directive that says civil arrests are allowed in any courthouse location. Although the directive urges agents to be discreet, the suit claims this still violates common law privileges dating back hundreds of years against civil arrests in and around courthouses. It also calls the directive an infringement on states’ sovereignty as protected by the Tenth Amendment.

The suit includes many examples in which ICE agents arrested people, mostly outside courthouses, while attending important proceedings. In April, ICE allegedly arrested a pregnant mother after attending a child custody hearing in Family Court in Queens. In another example, reported by WNYC, ICE attempted to arrest a woman in 2017 at a court for victims of human trafficking.

The second lawsuit, filed by the Legal Aid Society and Cleary Gottlieb, with assistance from the Immigrant Defense Project, seeks a permanent injunction ordering the halt of ICE courthouse arrests. It was filed on behalf of an individual plaintiff, known only as John Doe, described as a victim of domestic violence who feared coming to court to get an order of protection. Other plaintiffs include Make the Road New York, Urban Justice Center, Sanctuary for Families, The Door and the New York Immigration Coalition.

This suit accuses ICE of violating the Constitutional rights of noncitizens to petition the courts, have speedy trials and to due process and equal protection.

Brooklyn DA Gonzalez said fewer immigrant witnesses to crime are willing to cooperate with his office because they’re afraid of getting arrested when going to court, forcing his office to drop some cases. He didn’t cite any numbers but said calls to a unit in his office tasked with assisting immigrant victims of crime have decreased by two thirds from 2016 to 2018.

“For many of my constituents, the courthouse is no longer a place of safety and justice,” he stated. “It’s a trap.”

Beth Fertig is a senior reporter covering courts and legal affairs at WNYC. You can follow her on Twitter at @bethfertig.

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