New York should protect its courts from ICE

The Protect Our Courts Act would protect immigrant New Yorkers while attending court.

An immigration advocate holds a sign during a New York City Council rally on the steps of City Hall.

An immigration advocate holds a sign during a New York City Council rally on the steps of City Hall. John McCarten for the New York City Council

Domestic violence survivors afraid to go to court to seek protection, individuals facing criminal charges denied their fair day in court, parents too scared to attend child support proceedings, tenants deciding not to file actions against their landlords – these are the consequences of federal immigration agents conducting courthouse raids and arrests of people in New York.

This is why we introduced a new bill, the Protect Our Courts Act, which over a short period of time has gained more than 60 co-sponsors in the Assembly and state Senate. The bill would regulate these egregious raids, and restore access to court proceedings that do not discriminate against immigrant and mixed-status families and communities.

Since the beginning of 2017, the Immigrant Defense Project documented a 1,200 percent increase in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement courthouse arrests and attempted arrests across the state. ICE agents routinely show up in large groups, dress in plainclothes and refuse to identify themselves. They’re targeting a wide range of immigrant New Yorkers attending court, including individuals with pending criminal cases, parents attending family court for child support proceedings and particularly vulnerable groups like survivors of domestic violence and rape in human trafficking court.

The threat of being arrested by ICE in or near a courthouse not only undermines the constitutional guarantee of access to courts for all, regardless of immigration status, but also creates additional burdens on the vast majority of people who have no other means to resolve their disputes.

In April, Gov. Andrew Cuomo called for an immediate stop to ICE’s “reckless and unconstitutional enforcement actions” and signed an executive order banning ICE arrests in state-run buildings without a judicial order. However, the order does not extend to courthouses, which are governed by the judicial branch. The Protect Our Courts Act follows suit by helping ensure access to our judicial system for all New Yorkers.

Other stakeholders – including district attorneys, judges and elected officials – have also called for state action to protect immigrants from ICE. They cite dangerous barriers to facilitating victims’ access to courts and services as well as the ability of defendants to answer charges and witnesses to participate in cases. Impacted individuals, lawyers, anti-violence advocates, direct service providers, community-based organizations, and labor unions have also supported state intervention and highlighted how the presence of ICE agents in courthouses undermines public safety.

Despite the widespread public outcry, ICE continues to display extreme disregard for the integrity of the court system. It has publicly stated that courts are a preferred place to arrest people and that no one is off limits, including victims and witnesses.

The state Legislature must act to restore access to courts for all New Yorkers. The Protect Our Courts Act (A11013A/S8925) would strengthen two existing laws that make civil arrests like these unlawful without a judicial warrant, make it unlawful for ICE agents to enter courthouses for enforcement purposes without a judicial warrant and create mechanisms for impacted individuals and the state attorney general to take legal action if these protections are violated.

New York is a state with a deep history of welcoming immigrants and fostering diversity, and is grounded in the values of justice and equal access for all. Access to the courts and to legal proceedings cannot depend on place of birth, citizenship status, skin color or indigence. These ICE raids violate these principles. ICE’s courthouse arrests are affecting immigrant and mixed-status families and communities across this state, including the most vulnerable among us: victims of violence, those racially profiled and arrested, LGBT individuals, asylum seekers, the mentally ill and the homeless.

The time for New York to restore the right to nondiscriminatory courthouse access is now, and the Protect Our Courts Act is a key step forward. Our responsibility as elected leaders is to take action.