Immigration advocates and attorneys are calling for a ban on ICE agents at New York courthouses following the arrest of an undocumented Mexican immigrant when he showed up at Brooklyn Criminal Court for a regular appearance in a domestic violence case.
More than 100 organizations and officials are involved in fighting the Nov. 28 arrest of Genaro Rojas-Hernandez, 30, according to Rage Kidvai, who is a member of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys. During a rally at Brooklyn Borough Hall on Thursday, they demanded that Chief Judge Janet DiFiore and the Office of Court Administration stop collaborating with Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in city courts, and provide a safe space for immigrants in the justice system.
The legal service providers at the rally chanted “Keep ICE out of our courts,” “Hey Hey Ho Ho ICE has got to go,” and “When immigrants are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back.” Signs held high on the steps during the rally, which was conducted both in English and Spanish, read “No Mas Deportaciones,” and “No human being is illegal.”
Rally organizers plan to send letters to DiFiore by the end of the week, urging her to reconsider her position on ICE agents in courthouses.
“ICE has been picking up people in courts now for months, almost on a weekly basis. I have had to conduct long interviews with [my clients] explaining to them the consequences of coming to criminal court,” Kidvai, who works with undocumented immigrants, said. “People oftentimes take pleas because it’s between choosing the criminal case against them or their survival in this country.”
Public defenders are often not notified of the presence of ICE agents in the courthouse during their clients’ hearings, said Amanda Jack, from Brooklyn Defender Services. “I am well aware of the paralyzing effect of plainclothes ICE agents stalking through the hallways and lobbies of our criminal courts, preying upon people presumed innocent of infractions, violations and misdemeanors.”
On behalf of 5 Boro Defenders, Jack demanded that the city’s elected prosecutors stand up for immigrants in New York, decline to prosecute low-level offenses and eliminate the practice of asking for money bail in such cases.
Condemning cases like Rojas-Hernandez’s, Jack criticized the criminal justice system that she said allows her clients to be snatched away without the due process it promises to immigrants.
And Jack is not alone in her opinions. Following Rojas-Hernandez’s arrest on Nov. 28, hundreds of defense attorneys held a walkout in protest and marched to the Brooklyn district attorney’s office to demand justice.
The protest occurred after a judge told Rojas-Hernandez’s Legal Aid attorney that ICE agents were at the courthouse to arrest her client, but said she would be given time to speak with him to tell him his rights. When she left the courtroom to speak with Rojas-Hernandez, ICE agents immediately took him into custody and prevented her from speaking with him, according to the Legal Aid Society.
“The Legal Aid Society’s attorneys have an ethical and constitutional duty to advise and represent our clients, and that’s exactly what they were trying to do,” said Tina Luongo, attorney-in-charge of the Criminal Defense Practice at the Legal Aid Society. “While we understand the Office of Court Administration’s position that court officers are responsible for the safety and security of the courthouse, ICE’s presence undermines this and compromises the integrity of our judicial system.”
Speakers at Thursday’s rally condemned the Trump administration’s immigration policies in addition to the city’s criminal justice system.
“Judge DiFiore and the rest of OCA leadership must take action now because it is their duty to protect the integrity of our judicial system, a system that has come under increased attack under this president,” City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said. “We cannot allow this president and his agents to disrupt our judicial system. Discouraging people from going to courts greatly undermines our public safety.”
Other elected officials, including Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., have also backed advocates’ calls to ban ICE from courthouses. On Dec. 5, Diaz Jr. sent a letter to DiFiore and two ICE executives, urging them to consider the “grave consequences” of their methods.
“This approach and its ideological roots would be problematic in any context. But when it is employed in a place that undermines our society’s pursuit of justice, the courthouse, it is no longer just a problem. It is an offense to decency,” Diaz Jr. wrote in the letter.
ICE did not comment on the rally but said in a statement the agency “complies fully with all prevailing jurisdictional court policies and makes efforts to exhaust all other avenues before effecting a courthouse arrest.”
“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,” the agency said in a statement. “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.”
OCA could not be immediately reached for comment.