New Paltz resident Matthew Rojas was detained by immigration agents outside of the New Paltz Justice Court on Tuesday, Nov. 27 preventing him from attending his scheduled court date.
Rojas, 23, had a court date in response to his arrest on Oct. 17 where he was charged with possession of cocaine and marijuana. Before entering his court hearing, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) waited for Rojas at the steps of the Justice Court to apprehend him.
After his arrest, Rojas was sent to a detainment facility in Beacon, New York and later transfered to Bergen County, New Jersey where he stayed for less than 24 hours. He is currently in Essex Correctional Facility in New Jersey with about 60 other ICE detainees.
Although New Paltz is deemed a sanctuary city, local law was not violated since ICE did not consolidate with the local police force, according to a comment on Facebook by New Paltz Deputy Town Supervisor Dan Torres.
Torres clarified that the term “sanctuary city” is often misleading, as it does not have a legal definition. The law does not state that an undocumented person is safe from federal immigration enforcement, though it affirmed that as a municipality, it restricts local law enforcement from coordinating with ICE for immigration enforcement. A person’s legal status is not questioned by local law enforcement unless there is evidence of a violent felony.
The law was proposed because “everyone should be able to contact the police without fear,” Torres said.
It is uncertain how ICE was notified about Rojas’ immigrant status, or how a warrant was obtained for his arrest.
Public Defender of Ulster County Andrew Kossover explained that “when ICE comes and takes someone into custody, they rarely notify the court or district attorney.”
“I find that disrespectful to the criminal justice system because the defendant is being denied due process rights and it’s disrespectful to the court who is expected to proceed,” he said. “There needs to be support for a law that protects the sacredness of the court house grounds.”
Torres is currently seeking to propose a law that restricts ICE officials from making a courthouse arrest without a judicial warrant. In a town board meeting, held on Dec. 6, Torres stated that “If a judicial warrant would have been presented in this scenario then Matthew Rojas would have been legally detained, had they not had a judicial warrant, which in my understanding they did not, the arrest would have violated town law.”
Torres said in the meeting that he is not ready for a public hearing on the issue. The reasons for this law would be to advocate for the defendant’s Fifth Amendment rights of due process and defend themselves from their charges. From a “practical, non constitutional standpoint, if you are someone who is undocumented, you should be able to utilize our courthouse without fear of being arrested,” he said.
Rojas’ detainment comes nine months after New Paltz resident Joel Guerrero was detained by ICE. Back in February of 2017, after missing a court date in 2010 for a misdemeanor charge for possession of marijuana, Guerrero was detained.
“This is the third person who I know who has been abducted by ICE,” said Kevin Halcott, a friend of both Rojas and Guerrero. Halcott also referenced Kingston resident Juan Carlos Alonzo Vasquez.
Halcott has known Rojas for about a year and a half now from the local New Paltz night scene. He is a DJ, and Rojas is known as drag performer Fantasea. After hearing about Rojas detainment, Halcott became active in trying to gain funds and promote community awareness and involvement.
An initial GoFundMe page was created on Nov. 27, raising over $13,100. The account was closed to transfer that money for legal funds and bail which can take more than week. A second fundraising account started on Nov. 30 and has now raised over $2,300.
Other fundraising activities include collecting donations at Snugs Harbor Bar and Grill, with a special queer night on Mondays in his honor. Halcott has also organized weekly Saturday protests outside the Elting Memorial Library on Main Street to increase public awareness.
“We are doing this in solidarity with Matt, demanding his release and denouncing ICE in our community,” Halcott said.
According to Halcott, Rojas came to the to the United States at 3 years old where he lived in the Bronx and graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT). Rojas was a party promoter in Manhattan and later became involved in performance art.
“Matthew had a really strong radiance in our community,” Halcott said. “He’s an extremely considerate, protective and honest person, and what I have received from Matt is permission to be exactly who I am.”
Halcott also noted Rojas’ positive involvement in the community.
“I’ve seen Matt stand up for so many people. He’s always on a community policing level and has always managed to de-escalate any conflicts,” he said. “He’s a really wonderful soul looking to help people every step of the way.”
So far, there is no certainty as to when Rojas will be released, but Halcott believes that Rojas should be able to get bailed out and obtain immigration defense through the strong community effort.