Traditionally, courthouses used to be one of a short list of locations where ICE would avoid making arrests. The rationale for leaving courthouses alone was that everyone, including undocumented immigrants, have the right to perform their civil duties without being detained for their immigration status. Churches and schools used to also make up that list.
However, the new ICE administration has previously made clear they would no longer observe this tradition. For the past two years, ICE agents have enlisted New York State Court Officers to notify them when certain individuals arrived at the courthouse. The Office of Court Administration denies helping ICE facilitate arrests at the courthouse, but reporters at Documented (an immigration news site) obtained records showing that court officers did indeed assist ICE with their arrests.
According to the documents, there were 66 arrests between February 2017 and August 2018 at New York State courthouses, with at least 6 incidents where clerks or NYS Court Officers assisting with the arrest. Prosecutors and public defenders have united in denouncing ICE's courthouse arrests as damaging to the function of the criminal justice system.
It's important to note that undocumented immigrants show up to court for reasons unrelated to immigration matters. In one case, a man showed up to court to have his criminal charges dismissed, but was arrested shortly after dismissal. In other cases, undocumented immigrants were arrested before resolving their cases—leaving the criminal case unresolved and clogging up the courts. Then, those unresolved charges can be used against them by ICE attorneys to argue against releasing on bond or parole.
That's not all. ICE arrests can interfere with criminal trials, prejudicing the jury against the defendant (whose immigrant status is unrelated to the criminal charge). Witnesses and victims of crimes won't come forward if they feel there's a threat of arrest if they show up to the courthouse. Danny Frost, a spokesman for Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance, put it this way: "When fear of deportation prevents victims and witnesses from coming forward, or deters defendants from responsibly attending their court dates, we are all less safe."
The Protect Our Courts Act
Democrats in the New York State Assembly and Senate introduced a bill that would make it illegal to make civil arrests of people going to, coming from, or attending court proceedings in the state without a valid warrant. It prevents ICE agents from entering courthouses and would give the state attorney the ability to sue anyone who violates the law.
"The willing sharing of information between ICE officials and court staff in the absence of a judicial warrant is alarming," State Senator Brad Hoylman said. "Our justice system depends on the participation of everyone in our community, regardless of their immigration status." Other officials, both in New York and in Los Angeles (where courthouse arrests have also occurred), have made it clear that undocumented immigrants must be freely able to go to court for the whole community to be safe.
Whatever the solution here, undocumented immigrants have as much access to due process other protections under the law. Arresting them for, essentially, accessing their right to a criminal trial or for cooperating as a witness is as wrongheaded as it is wrong.
If you or a loved one has been arrested by ICE, contact our New Jersey immigration lawyer today at (800) 909-8129. We've helped hundreds of undocumented immigrants resolve their cases favorably, so speak with us today!