Spring State Law Melts ICE’s Control in Courthouses

Undocumented immigrants in New York now have some protection inside courthouses because of a directive from the New York State Office of Court Administration that took effect Wednesday, April 17.

The directive requires representatives of law enforcement, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents to present a warrant issued by a Unified Court System judge in order to enter the courthouse to “observe an individual or take an individual into custody.”        

The purpose of this directive is to “permit law enforcement agencies to act in pursuit of their official legal duties in New York State courthouses, provided that the conduct in no way disrupts or delays court operations or compromises public safety or court decorum.”

According to an Immigration Defense Project report from Jan. 28, in 2018, there have been 202 ICE arrests and sightings in New York State courthouses. This reflects a 1700 percent increase since 2016, which had only 11 documented ICE arrests. 

On Jan. 10, 2018, ICE issued a directive which states “ICE civil immigration enforcement actions inside courthouses include actions against specific, targeted aliens with criminal convictions, gang members, national security or public safety threats, aliens who have been ordered removed from the United States but have failed to depart and aliens who have re-entered the country illegally after being removed, when ICE officers or agents have information that leads them to believe the targeted aliens are present at that specific location.”

The Immigration Defense Project reported that after ICE issued their directive, agents “expanded the reach of courthouse arrests.”  

While 75 percent of the courthouse arrests occurred in New York City, in 2017 ICE agents began to appear in village and town courts located in Westchester, Rockland, Columbia, Orange, Ulster and Albany. 

This directive is similar to the Protect Our Courts Act, which was introduced on May 30 in 2018 and is co-sponsored by Assemblyman Kevin Cahill, D-Kingston. The bill not only bars ICE agents from making arrests during court proceedings without a judicial warrant, but it also protects undocumented immigrants while going to and returning from court. 

Ronnie Yastion, New Paltz resident and co-founder of One Pulse-New Paltz Emergency Immigrant Alliance Fund, said that the directive is a “step in the right direction of the Protect Our Courts Act, but it falls short” because undocumented immigrants remain unprotected while going to and from court.          

“While I support this initial directive, I believe we need to take it a step further and pass the Protect Our Courts Act,” Yastion said. “If people can be arrested as soon as they leave court this doesn’t much help to curtail their feelings of unease when showing up at court.”

According to the Immigration Defense Project, 67 percent of legal service providers working with victims of violence have had clients who have decided to not seek help in court because of fears of ICE. In addition, 29 percent have had clients fail to appear in court because of ICE. 

“Access to our courts is essential to our democracy and without such access the criminal justice system is unable to properly function,” Yastion said. “Access to the courts is equally important for all people living in the United States regardless of their immigration status.”