Judge Declares Courthouse Immigration Arrests Illegal in New York

The New York County Courthouse in Manhattan. (Courthouse News photo/Adam Klasfeld)

MANHATTAN (CN) — Sowing chaos and intimidation throughout New York’s judicial system, Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s policy of arresting people in state courthouses is illegal, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.

“Recent events confirm the need for freely and fully functioning state courts, not least in the state of New York,” U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff wrote in a blistering, 24-page opinion. “But it is one thing for the state courts to try to deal with the impediments brought on by a pandemic, and quite another for them to have to grapple with disruptions and intimidations artificially imposed by an agency of the federal government in violation of long-standing privileges and fundamental principles of federalism and of separation of powers.”

As a result of today’s injunction, ICE cannot conduct arrests on the grounds of New York state courthouses or against people traveling to them as a party or witness.

New York state Attorney General Letitia James, who filed the lawsuit challenging the policy with Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez last year, celebrated an end to what she called a dangerous practice.

“Our victory over the Trump administration’s over-policing policies ensures the important work happening in local courts will continue undeterred without the targeting of immigrants seeking access to our courts,” James wrote in a statement. “By allowing federal agents to interfere with state and local cases, the Trump administration endangered the safety of every New Yorker, while targeting immigrants. All New Yorkers—immigrant or not — can sleep better tonight knowing justice can continue to be carried out.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York declined to comment.

Just five days after assuming office, President Donald Trump issued an executive order directing the Department of Homeland Security to prioritize enforcement against broader categories of immigrants. Then-Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly followed up that directive with a memorandum stating authorities would “no longer will exempt classes or categories” of immigrants.

Neither documents specifically mentioned courthouses, but the government agrees they were understood to lift earlier limitations on where the arrests could take place.

In 2018, ICE codified the change with language stating “family members or friends accompanying the target alien to court appearances or serving as a witness in a proceeding” should not be arrested absent “special circumstances,” not defining what those loopholes were.

Once a rare occurrence, courthouse immigration arrests surged from 28 in 2016 to 161 in 2017, 107 in 2018, and 173 in 2019.

Since the lawsuit’s filing last year, Judge Rakoff, a Bill Clinton appointee, heard evidence of the policy’s effects, including testimony from the Brooklyn district attorney. The ruling recounts how ICE arresting immigrants entering court for scheduling proceedings wasted time and resources

“Even worse were those occasions when ICE conducted an arrest in the courthouse itself, resulting in ‘complete chaos,’ … as well as physical damage,” Rakoff wrote. “Finally, ICE further undermined the interests of justice by arresting and deporting criminal defendants who were appearing in court in connection with their own cases, thereby ensuring that these defendants never faced justice for their crimes.”

“For more than three years, I have been calling on ICE to stop its unconscionable practice of conducting immigration raids in and around our courthouses because they jeopardize public safety,” Gonzalez said in a statement. “But the Trump administration only escalated this unlawful and dangerous tactic, creating a chilling effect in immigrant communities, which discouraged victims and witnesses from reporting crimes and participating in the legal process.”

Characteristic for a judge known for tough and plain-spoken criticism of the government, Rakoff minced few words in his conclusion.

“Specifically, the court declares ICE’s policy of courthouse arrests, as now embodied in the directive, to be illegal, and hereby enjoins ICE from conducting any civil arrests on the premises or grounds of New York State courthouses, as well as such arrests of anyone required to travel to a New York State courthouse as a party or witness to a lawsuit,” he wrote.

ICE did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment.

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