Attorneys Hold Chilly Protest as Immigration Arrests at Court Surge

Protesters brave the cold on Dec. 7, 2017, to rally against a surge of immigration arrests being carried out in New York City courthouses. (AMANDA OTTAWAY, Courthouse News Service)

BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) – A week after public defenders staged a walkout in protest of immigration agents carrying out courthouse arrests, attorneys joined a throng of several hundred protesters Thursday on the chilly front steps of Brooklyn Borough Hall.

“Hey, hey, ho, ho, ICE has got to go,” they chanted, using the abbreviation for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that appeared in many of the home-made signs dotting the crowd.

“Melt ICE,” one said. Against a backdrop of these signs, and more official placards that carried the names of groups like the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, the Osborne Association and New York City Public Defenders, several speakers addressed the crowd in both Spanish and English.

“We call on the Office of Court Administration to block ICE from all New York courts immediately … by ending information-sharing with ICE and by prohibiting courthouse arrests,” said Amanda Jack of Brooklyn Defender Services.

Attorneys with the Legal Aid Society, which staged a walkout on Nov. 28 at Brooklyn Criminal Court, were also in the mix. Last week’s walkout was prompted by the sudden arrest by ICE of a defendant who was in court to face charges of violating a restraining order.

New York’s Office of Court Administration reported that the arrest is one of approximately 50 conducted by ICE agents in a courthouse since the year started.

Protesters brave the cold on Dec. 7, 2017, to rally against a surge of immigration arrests being carried out in New York City courthouses. (AMANDA OTTAWAY, Courthouse News Service)

A legal-aid group called the Immigrant Defense Project meanwhile told the Village Voice last week that it had counted 70.

Reform advocates with the Fund for Modern Courts explained in a Dec. 5 report that the surge in courthouse arrests spell big problems for the justice system.

“There are reports of victims who are afraid to report crimes, witnesses who are unwilling to appear in court, and some of the most vulnerable New Yorkers, including in one case a human trafficking victim, who barely avoided arrest,” Modern Courts said.

New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito spoke to these issues at Thursday’s rally, telling the crowd about her meeting with the New York Office of Court Administration on reducing the presence of ICE in New York City courthouses.

“We have seen, unfortunately, that the protocols that OCA has put in place are not enough to basically stop ICE from roaming our courthouses,” Viverito said. “So today we’re calling on OCA to ban ICE from New York courthouses.”

Protesters brave the cold on Dec. 7, 2017, to rally against a surge of immigration arrests being carried out in New York City courthouses. (AMANDA OTTAWAY, Courthouse News Service)

In its report Tuesday, Modern Courts described a proposal by Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, who leads administrative arm of the state court system, to have courthouses designated as sensitive locations where ICE cannot pursue enforcement actions except under limited circumstances.

Modern Courts called this solution unlikely to come to fruition in the current climate, but ICE spokeswoman Rachael Yong Yow spoke Thursday only about existing policy.

“ICE does not consider courthouses sensitive locations,” Yong Yow said in an email.

Though she declined to comment on the rally specifically, Yong Yow said that New York City’s status as a sanctuary city underscores the need for ICE agents to carry out arrests in courthouses.

“Because sanctuary cities like New York City do not honor ICE detainers, aliens, who often have significant criminal histories, are released onto the street, presenting a potential public safety threat,” Yong Yow said. “Courthouse visitors are typically screened upon entry, making arrests inside such facilities far safer for everyone involved. ICE does not target victims or witnesses for enforcement action.”

Lucian Chalfen, a spokesman for New York’s Office of Court Administration, emphasized that the safety of all New Yorkers is one that the group takes seriously.

“Court officers are not complicit, do not coordinate with, facilitate or impede actions by outside law enforcement, including ICE agents, when they effect an arrest inside New York state courthouses,” Chalfen said.

Protesters brave the cold on Dec. 7, 2017, to rally against a surge of immigration arrests being carried out in New York City courthouses. (AMANDA OTTAWAY, Courthouse News Service)

At Thursday’s rally, forensic social worker Andrea Stone stood with several other women in the back of the rally crowd. She held a sign for the Legal Aid Society Association for Union Attorneys.

“I support their mission to protect our clients and prohibit racist attacks against our clients, whether documented or not,” Stone said.

For Stone, ICE arrests inside courthouses are the beginning of a slippery slope.

“Once you allow any group of people to remain marginalized, then you also allow groups to have their civil liberties taken away,” she said. “And that sends a very dangerous message and precedent for the rest of us.”

Also present Thursday were representatives from the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, Brooklyn Defender Services, Catholic Migration Services, Coalition to End Broken Windows, Families for Freedom, Immigrant Defense Project and Jewish Voice for Peace, as well as students from Columbia, CUNY and Fordham law schools, among others.

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