NEW YORK – When Nevisian Floyel Stapleton appeared in a Manhattan Criminal Court in New York for a routine hearing in his misdemeanour assault case, he was stunned to be met by US federal immigration agents as he left the courtroom.
“I didn’t know they were there. They were in plain clothes. They had no badges, and they arrested me when I was walking out of the courtroom. They just asked my name and they arrested me,” 39-year-old Stapleton told the New York Daily News from an immigration detention center in Hudson County, New York.
” They are trying to deport me. The situation sucks,” he adds.
Stapleton’s arrest on February 21 by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents comes amid a growing debate about whether immigration agents should be allowed in New York City’s 31 courthouses at all
US President Donald J Trump has promised a surge in immigration enforcement, creating an atmosphere of fear among many of New York’s immigrant communities that extends to the courtroom.
The New York Office of Court Administration (OCA) has confirmed only two arrests by ICE in city courthouses since mid-February.
But ICE agents have also been spotted in court on three other occasions, inquiring about certain defendants or lingering in arraignments.
“The Chief Administrative Judge and other senior court administration officials are closely monitoring the appearance of ICE agents in our court facilities,” OCA spokesman Lucian Chalfen said, noting the small number of “verified” ICE appearances.
“Since we began monitoring the situation, we have verified five interactions with defendants in New York City court facilities, resulting in two arrests,” he added.
Stapleton was convicted multiple times for selling drugs and domestic violence.
He told the New York Daily News that ICE attempted to deport him in 2007 but released him for reasons that were unclear.
Stapleton came to the United States when he was 13. He lived in Harlem with his disabled mother and helped pay the rent. He has left behind a one-year-old girl, as well as a daughter who had to stop attending Howard University in Washington, DC, because she couldn’t pay tuition.
Stapleton’s sister, who declined to give her first name, said calls to lawyers had not been helpful because she had so little information about what had happened to her brother.
“I don’t have any information to give them. I can’t tell them why he’s there, what happened. It’s scary”
Public legal defenders say OCA’s figures on ICE sightings do not accurately reflect the magnitude of the problem.
Some immigrant clients are scared to appear in court as required and lawyers are overhauling legal strategies in light of ICE’s presence.
“We have also had clients arrested outside the courthouse on the front steps, in the hallways and as they’re walking away down the street toward the subway,” said Lori Zeno, co-founder and managing director of Queens (New York) Law Associates. “The court system in this country is supposed to be neutral.”
New York City laws forbid the New York Department of Correction from complying with ICE “detainer orders” pertaining to inmates held on many less serious offenses, said the New York Daily News, adding that the City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito is crafting legislation to ban ICE from city courts.
“The presence of ICE in the City’s courthouses is deeply disruptive to court operations and our criminal justice system,” Mark-Viverito spokeswoman Robin Levine said.
Rosemary Boeglin, a spokeswoman for New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, said courts must be neutral and assure “equal access to justice.”
“Enforcement activity that might discourage victims from coming forward, or even defendants from showing up for their court date, could undermine public safety for all of us,” she said.
Even as legislators and immigrant advocacy groups express outrage over the Trump administration’s immigration policies, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions has announced the expansion and modernization of a programme to deport immigrants, including Caribbean nationals, in US federal correctional facilities.