Acting Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez announced Monday that his office will train prosecutors to better navigate immigration law, and consider a defendant's immigration status before making a plea offer or recommending a sentence that could have serious consequences, such as deportation.
Misdemeanor convictions like minor drug possession, petit larceny and crimes of moral turpitude (i.e. jumping a turnstile) can have disproportionately serious consequences for non-citizens. For an undocumented New Yorker, such a conviction might prioritize her for deportation, or complicate efforts to acquire legal residency based on marriage or dangerous conditions in her country of origin.
Lawful residents, including green card holders, refugees, and students studying on visa, can also face deportation. Misdemeanor convictions can be grounds to bar a lawful resident from reentry to the country after an international trip, as well.
"I am committed to equal and fair justice for all Brooklyn residents—citizens, lawful residents and undocumented immigrants alike," Gonzalez said in a statement Monday.
Post-conviction immigration consequences have historically varied, depending on how long a person has lived in the U.S., and whether he or she has prior convictions, according to the DA's office.
Taking this into account, Gonzalez will hire two immigration attorneys to help staff assess each individual case. If a defendant is believed to be a non-citizen, the assistant DA will flag the case, to ensure that his or her defense counsel considers possible immigration consequences.
Gonzalez was careful to emphasize Monday that his office does not intend to "frustrate" the federal government's intentions to deport non-citizens who have "caused real harm and endangered others."
"We will not stop prosecuting crimes," he said, adding that the new policy will focus on trading a misdemeanor charge with a possible immigration consequence, for a comparable charge that is typically immigration-neutral.
For example, if a person is arrested for trespassing, and is also found to have a small amount of marijuana in her pocket, the DA would likely choose an immigration-neutral trespass plea, over a misdemeanor drug offense.
(Scott Lynch / Gothamist)
Jose Calderon, president of the Hispanic Federation, praised the new initiative. "For far too long, our justice system has carelessly triggered double jeopardy for immigrants, who were unaware of all their legal options that may impact their ability to remain with their families in this country," he stated.
Make The Road New York Director Deborah Axt also praised the move. "It's critical that Brooklyn residents heading to court know the potential immigration consequences of their cases," she said.
"An arrest still means that you are going to be processed and fingerprinted, so this doesn't do anything to stop that," cautioned Jordan Wells, a staff attorney with the New York Civil Liberties Union. "You're still getting on ICE's radar."
"We think some of this low-level stuff should be decriminalized altogether," he added.
Mayor de Blasio has consistently pledged to remain tough on crime, while limiting cooperation between the NYPD and federal immigration officials. The Mayor has also defended Broken Windows, which prioritizes quality-of-life policing as a way to prevent more serious crime.
Advocates have pushed back since November, arguing that President Trump's executive orders on immigration could impact any immigrant in the criminal justice system—a system that broken windows feeds.
Gonzalez has spoken out against Broken Windows, saying that the policy "does not keep us safe."
But the coalition criticized the acting DA Monday, saying that this latest initiative doesn't go far enough in helping New Yorkers negatively impacted by the practice.
"It may actually give people a false sense of protection," the group stated. "It also doesn't do anything whatsoever to help the non-immigrant New Yorkers who are devastated by low-level arrests and prosecutions on a daily basis."
According to Wells, cooperation from the DA's office could still be a big help to criminal defense attorneys looking to minimize consequences for their clients. "Without the prosecution being on board, defense attorneys are sort of powerless to negotiate," he said.
"The recognition here is that a slap on the wrist criminal justice-wise can become a knockout punch immigration-wise," Wells added.