Rise in Immigration Arrests at Court Spurs Call for Reform

MANHATTAN (CN) – Saying the Empire State is not immune to the nationwide surge in courthouse arrests by immigration officers, a nonprofit court group laid out steps that the judiciary can take to protect New Yorkers.

The 24-page report released Tuesday by The Fund for Modern Courts opens with arrest estimates by the New York’s Office of Court Administration: officers with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement have made approximately 50 courthouse arrests since the year started.

Though this number is small relative to the number of total number of court appearances during this time frame, Modern Courts says it still marks a significant increase.

As of Oct. 30, 2017, the Immigrant Defense Project received reports of 90 arrests across the state and 11 attempted arrests. It says 70 of those incidents (eight attempts and 62 arrests) occurred in New York City — more than five times the number reported in all of 2016.

“Those increased number of arrests are significant for immigrant communities,” the report by Modern Courts states. “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 says it is proposing solutions because courthouses must be kept safe “for all, whether they are litigants, defendants, victims, witnesses or family members who attend court proceedings.”

“A lack of confidence in the safety of the courthouse undermines justice,” the report states.

Modern Courts says even Janet DiFiore, the chief judge of the New York’s highest court, has recognized the problem. When she met with Department of Homeland Security and ICE officials in the spring, she reportedly requested that courthouses be designated as sensitive locations where ICE would not pursue enforcement actions except under limited circumstances.

In the current climate, however, Modern Courts says this solution is unlikely to come to fruition.

The proposals laid out in the report are ones that can be shouldered by the state judiciary. It says they can require judicial warrants for ICE to enter a courthouse, and reduce how frequently litigants need to appear in court.

Judges can also warn immigrants or their lawyers if they know ICE is present and has plans to detain. The last recommendation is for court employees to cooperate and help in civil immigration enforcement only to the extent “required by law — specifically, supplying if asked, citizenship and immigration data.”

New York’s Office of Court Administration has the power to issue rules on the matters in the Modern Courts report.

“We have received the report and are reviewing it,” Lucian Chalfen, a spokesman for the office, said in an email.

Representatives for ICE did not return a request for comment.

Modern Courts executive director Dennis Hawkins noted in an interview Wednesday that his group has been nonpartisan since 1955. Most of its funding, including the funding for Tuesday’s report, comes from the group’s board members, he said.

One finding of the report, attributed to state court administration, is that ICE has not made any arrests in noncriminal courts since June 2017.

The report also cites a survey of 225 attorneys conducted by the Immigrant Defense Project. It found that “since January 2017, three out of four legal service providers report that clients have expressed fear of going to court because of ICE.”

This number included 37 percent of people who were seeking a protection order from the court and 56 percent who said they were too scared to file a housing complaint. Immigrants are also reluctant to report crimes and act as witnesses, the survey found.

“It’s the humanity of the issue that we’re talking about,” Hawkins said. “People don’t go to court for fun. They go to court because they need the help of government.”

By enforcing immigration arrests near courthouses, Hawkins said, “the federal government is denying people the opportunity to use the system that was created for these needs.”

“Whether you’re a citizen or not a citizen, if you’re being physically abused by your spouse, you really need government to protect you,” Hawkins added.

Though immigration arrests are soaring this year, they were at record highs in the Obama administration as well. Under Obama, however, ICE focused primarily on deporting people who were a public-safety threat, and it tried not to have people arrested in public spaces.

The Trump administration has authorized harsher immigration policies, cracking down on deportation of undocumented immigrants with any kind of criminal convictions or charges. Modern Courts says this means something as simple as getting caught driving without a license could get someone deported.

The New York Times reported that ICE arrested more than 40,000 people in the first several months of 2017.

In one widely reported instance in Texas, a woman’s abuser allegedly tipped off ICE that she would be in court getting a protection order from him, and ICE arrested her there.

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