NEW YORK – The New York State Legislature last week passed a bill prohibiting United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents from arresting Caribbean and other immigrants in New York courthouses without a judicial warrant or court order.
The bill must be signed by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo in order for it to become law.
“We have seen federal ICE agents make a concerted effort to use courthouses as a means of entrapment, which in turn has created a hostile environment for individuals seeking recourse from New York courts,” said Haitian American Assemblywoman Michaelle C. Solages, who was recently elected to serve as the chair of the New York State Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus (BPHA) for a two-year term starting on January 1, 2021.
“We have fought tirelessly to protect New Yorkers from the unjust federal policies that target our immigrant communities,” added Solages, who represents the 22nd Assembly District in Nassau County, Long Island, a New York City suburb. “This legislation will protect all New Yorkers’ access to the justice system, to ensure public safety.”
Solages, a third-term legislator, is the first person of Haitian descent to be elected into the New York State Legislature.
New York State Senator Brad Hoylman, who sponsored the legislation in the State Senate, said: “We cannot allow our courthouses to become a hunting ground for federal agents attempting to round up immigrant New Yorkers.”
The legislation would prohibit immigration-related courthouse arrest, which is an arrest while on the way to or returning from a court proceeding.
It would promote public safety and ensure that all New Yorkers have access to the justice system and can attend court without fear of immigration consequences.
According to New York’s Immigrant Defense Project, from 2016-17 arrests by ICE agents at courthouses in New York increased by 1,200 percent.
The Project said that fear of being targeted, either due to a lack of documented immigration status or concern about the uncertain status of a family member, have dissuaded many individuals from contacting law enforcement or following through with necessary court proceedings.
The New York State Assembly said district attorneys and legal representatives have expressed frustration and concern regarding their ability to pursue cases, “as victims and witnesses are sometimes too afraid to attend court proceedings.”
“This inability of law enforcement and the legal system to work effectively with immigrant communities and individuals has potentially severe consequences for public safety,” said the Assembly in a statement.
Last month, New York Attorney General Letitia James and Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez won a major victory against the Trump administration that prevents the administration’s practice of arresting Caribbean and other immigrants in and around New York state courthouses in a manner that interferes with the state’s administration of justice.
Last September, James and Gonzalez filed a lawsuit against ICE and the US Department of Homeland Security, challenging the legality of the federal government’s expanded policy of arresting Caribbean and other immigrants in or around state courthouses.
James said the suit sought to halt a three-year pattern of civil immigration arrests by federal ICE agents in and around state courts, “which have caused a major disruption to state court operations.”
By targeting witnesses and victims for arrests, she said noncitizens and immigrants are deterred from assisting in state and local law enforcement efforts or protecting their own rights in court.
As a result, the New York Attorney General said valid prosecutions have been “abandoned — or never pursued — making communities less safe.”
After James and Gonzalez filed their lawsuit, President Trump and his Administration immediately filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit.
But, in December, Judge Rakoff denied the motion, saying, “Courts cannot be expected to function properly if third parties (not least the executive branch of the government) feel free to disrupt the proceedings and intimidate the parties and witnesses by staging arrests for unrelated civil violations in the courthouse, on court property, or while the witnesses or parties are in transit to or from their court proceedings.”
In May, James led a coalition of attorneys general in filing an amicus brief in a similar lawsuit in Massachusetts.
Since Trump took office, James said ICE courthouse arrests have skyrocketed in New York, “leading to a widespread, chilling effect on noncitizens’ willingness to initiate and participate in the judicial system.”
She said hundreds of immigrants have been arrested while appearing in and around state courts since January 2017, including those accused of a crime; parents appearing in child support matters; survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, human trafficking, and other crimes; people who are mentally ill or homeless; and LGBTQ+ individuals; among others.
James said these arrests have happened on a near-daily basis.
“By using the court system to trap immigrants for detention and deportation, ICE is effectively keeping immigrants from ever accessing state courts in the first place and actively interfering with and violating the rights of individuals, associations and organizations across the state,” James said.