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Albany Bill Could Make It Harder For ICE To Arrest Immigrants At Courthouses

Assemblywoman Michaelle Solanges at a press conference discussing the proposed legislation.
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Assemblywoman Michaelle Solanges at a press conference discussing the proposed legislation. Beth Fertig / WNYC

District attorneys, public defenders and immigration advocates joined state lawmakers Thursday to support legislation that would make it harder for Immigration and Customs Enforcement to arrest immigrants both inside and outside courthouses.

The Protect Our Courts Act (A.2176/S.425) is sponsored by Nassau County Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages and Manhattan Senator Brad Hoylman, both Democrats. It would require ICE to provide a warrant signed by a judge before arresting anyone in or outside a court. The NYPD and city jails already have similar policies.

Proponents said the legislation is necessary because of the growing number of ICE arrests in and around courthouses since President Trump took office. The Immigrant Defense Project released a report on Monday finding the number of arrests and sightings of ICE personnel in and around New York State’s courts rose 1700 percent in the past two years. It counted just 11 in 2016, and 202 in 2018. The report is based on information collected from community groups and lawyers.

In 2017, WNYC reported that ICE agents tried to arrest an undocumented immigrant in a court for victims of human trafficking.

Solages said her district office had received calls from people who said they feared going to court because they could be arrested by ICE.

“What if a victim of human trafficking wanted to speak out against their predator and they wouldn’t be able to do that because of fear of immigration enforcement?” she asked.

“What if someone who was being menaced by MS-13 wanted to go testify against gang members but couldn’t for fear that ICE would deport them and separate them from their families?”

The district attorneys from Manhattan, the Bronx and Brooklyn said the legislation would enhance public safety by making it easier for immigrant victims and witnesses of crime to go to court, as well as those accused of crimes.

“We can’t keep our families safe if we don’t have the trust of the people we serve,” said Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez.

ICE has a policy against arresting immigrants in spaces that are deemed “sensitive,” like houses of worship, schools and hospitals. But the federal agency considers courthouses to be public buildings. Similar legislation was introduced last year to restrict ICE from courthouses, but New York lawmakers believe they have better odds this year because the Senate is controlled by Democrats instead of Republicans.

In the past, Chief Judge Janet DiFiore has maintained that courts are public buildings, limiting her power to prevent ICE officers from entering them. On Thursday, Office of Court Administration spokesman Lucian Chalfan said “We are reviewing the provisions of the [new] bill.”

He also noted that ICE arrests inside courthouses have declined by 50 percent from 2017 to 2018. Only 13 arrests were made inside court facilities last year in New York City and 26 statewide. Chalfen also said that ICE agents increasingly come to court prepared with judicial warrants.

Under the proposed legislation, any person entering or leaving a courthouse would be protected from an ICE arrest without a judicial warrant — including witnesses, family and household members. The state’s attorney general would also be empowered to pursue legal action against ICE agents on behalf of anyone arrested in violation of the law.

But the proposed legislation does not clearly define where the courthouse ends and a public street begins. It refers only to the need to protect people “going to, remaining at, and returning from” court proceedings.

Lee Wong of the Immigrant Defense Project said “we would need to figure out the exact parameters of what is the exact distance” but added it would probably be “within a block” of a court building.

“It’s of great concern that it’s not just the courthouses but it is the area around them as well,” said Senator Brad Hoylman, who noted that ICE officers often gather outside courts.

He also said it’s in the state legislature’s domain to regulate courthouses as it sees fit.

Supporters of the legislation say if approved, it would go further than what any other state has done to limit ICE in courts.

ICE did not reply to a request for comment on the legislation. In the past, the agency has said it’s been driven to make more arrests at courthouses because of New York’s so-called “sanctuary” policies limiting the cooperation of police and jails.

Beth Fertig is a senior reporter covering courts and legal affairs at WNYC. You can follow her on Twitter at @bethfertig.

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