Out with the new, in with the old: Eric Adams wants to go back to laxer sanctuary protections

In his most forceful comments on the issue to date, the New York City mayor wants to collaborate with federal immigration authorities when a migrant is merely suspected of committing a crime.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams

New York City Mayor Eric Adams (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

New York City Mayor Eric Adams said he wants to revert back to an earlier, weaker iteration of the city’s sanctuary policies, which could again allow the city to collaborate with federal immigration authorities when an immigrant is merely suspected of or being investigated for a crime. 

“I want to go back to the standards of the previous mayors who I believe subscribed to my belief that people who are suspected of committing serious crimes in this city should be held accountable,” Adams told reporters on Tuesday. 

In his most forceful and detailed comments on the matter to date, Adams spoke out against laws enacted by the City Council in 2014 and 2017 that expanded the city’s sanctuary policies by limiting how and when city police and correctional officials could collaborate with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Under the 2014 laws, the city can’t comply with requests from ICE to turn over migrants to their custody except in a limited number of circumstances, including if a person has been convicted of certain serious and violent crimes. The 2017 law also prohibited city agencies from partnering with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and city resources from being used to support federal immigration enforcement. According to Lisa Zornberg, Adams’ chief counsel, both placed “strong limitations on the city’s ability to cooperate or provide even notification to federal authorities.”

Describing those laws as a “drastic shift,” Adams said he wants sanctuary-city policies reverted to a manner similar to the executive order first enacted by Mayor Ed Koch in 1989, which was then continued under his predecessors. That particular executive order – the city’s first sanctuary policy – barred city agencies and government workers from sharing information about immigration status with federal authorities unless the individual was suspected of committing a crime. A conviction or even being charged was not a necessary prerequisite for that collaboration to take place.

Asked about the implications such a reversal would have on due process, Adams brushed the question off. “They didn't give due process to the person that they punched, or shot or killed,”  he said, adding, “There’s just a philosophical disagreement here. Nobody is taking away anyone’s due process, but the mere fact that we can’t share with ICE that this person has committed three robberies, that this person is part of an organized gang group – the mere fact that we can't say that or communicate that is problematic to me.”

It’s not clear whether the mayor thinks the city should be permitted to cooperate with ICE only in instances when an individual is suspected of committing a violent crime – as opposed to any criminal activity. The city did not respond to a request for clarification by the time of publication.

The Legal Aid Society and several public defender organizations across the city criticized the mayor’s comments in a statement on Tuesday, saying that the city’s current sanctuary laws are based on the principle of due process. “These protections aim to ensure that New York City complies with the constitutional requirement of probable cause when working with ICE to detain someone,” the statement read in part. “This allows people, many of whom have been targeted by our city’s racist policing policies, to remain in New York City to fight their cases rather than be turned over to ICE officials, who may detain and deport someone without a criminal trial or conviction.”

The mayor’s comments on Tuesday build on his statement at a town hall conversation on Monday night that he wants to see the laws modified. But until Tuesday, he hadn’t clarified what he wants to see instituted in place of the city’s current policies.  

Mayor Adams has previously pointed to the City Council when talking about modifying sanctuary laws, saying that such a change would need to go through the legislative body. When asked whether the City Council had any intention to alter the city’s sanctuary status in early February, Speaker Adrienne Adams firmly shut down the possibility, telling reporters that she has “no plans” to reexamine the protections. It is very unlikely that the Democrat-dominated City Council will do anything to weaken the policies. Over the years, members have staunchly defended the present laws.

“These policies foster trust and cooperation between immigrant communities and local authorities which is critical to public safety,” Speaker Adams said during a Feb. 8 media briefing. “Those opportunistically exploiting an incident that we should all be united in denouncing, to attack public safety policies, are advocating for policies that would make our city less safe.”

Since the spring of 2022, more than 178,600 asylum-seekers have come through the city, and more than 65,000 remain in city shelters as of last week. Recent arrests of migrants accused of committing crimes – including assaulting police officers in a scuffle outside a Times Square migrant shelter last month and a shooting earlier this month – has fueled conservative rallying cries against the city’s sanctuary policies. 

Despite his recent interest in modifying the city’s sanctuary policies, Mayor Adams has said several times that the vast majority of recent arrivals to New York City aren’t engaging in criminal activity. “The overwhelming number of migrants and asylum-seekers that are here, they want to work,” he said on Monday.