Two federal lawsuits were filed against U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Wednesday in the Southern District of New York, one by New York Attorney General Letitia James and Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, and the second by the Legal Aid Society, among other law firms and organizations. The lawsuits are targeting ICE for making civil immigration arrests in and around state courthouses.
James’ lawsuit alleges arresting immigrants in the vicinity of courthouses disrupts the functioning of those courts and intimidates victims and witnesses from working with law enforcement and from protecting their own rights.
The lawsuit filed by the Legal Aid Society is a firsthand example of this issue. It represents a noncitizen domestic violence survivor who was afraid of getting arrested by ICE, so did not make a necessary appearance in court for an order of protection.
In a statement, Gonzalez said immigrant victims and witnesses’ fear of getting arrested by ICE because of the agency’s courthouse presence has obstructed many of his criminal cases over the past two years.
“The refusal by ICE to treat courthouses as sensitive locations regularly disrupts court operations, creates a chilling effect in immigrant communities and erodes public safety,” Gonzalez said. “The policy is not only misguided — it exceeds their lawful authority, which is why we are now asking the judiciary to put an end to it.”
An ICE spokesperson refuted the claim that courthouse arrests are unconstitutional in an emailed statement.
“ICE’s enforcement activities at courthouses are consistent with long-standing law enforcement practices nationwide,” they wrote. “And courthouse arrests are often necessitated by the unwillingness of jurisdictions to cooperate with ICE in the transfer of custody of aliens from their prisons and jails.”
ICE policy identifies sensitive locations, or sanctuary spaces, for officers to avoid, including schools, places of worship and hospitals. In a 2018 resolution, the New York State Bar Association asked ICE to classify courthouses as sensitive locations.
According to the Immigrant Defense Project, from late 2016 to April 2019, there was a 1,736 percent increase in ICE courthouse enforcement in and around New York courts.
In Columbia County, there were 16 attempted courthouse arrests in the last two and a half years, according to Bryan MacCormack, executive director of the Columbia County Sanctuary Movement. In 2016, prior to the Trump administration, there were 11 ICE arrests made at courthouses in all of New York.
The New York State Office of Court Administration banned ICE from making arrests inside their courthouses in April, which advocates say is a great first step. The next goal is legislation to encompass all New York State courthouses and provide a pathway for civil action if ICE arrests someone inside, or on their way to or from courthouses.
In the last legislative session, state Sen. Brad Hoylman, D-27, sponsored a bill that would bar ICE from making civil immigration arrests in and around state courthouses without a judicial warrant or order authorizing the arrest. New York would be the first state to pass such a law.
“This is about safeguarding the integrity of one of our legal branches of government,” Hoylman said. “The courts really are the one venue that should be de-politicized.”
In line with Gonzalez, Hoylman said the chilling effect of ICE arrests at courthouses has made immigrants fear appearing in court as victims or witnesses of crime. The two Wednesday lawsuits, he said, will add a sense of urgency to the issue.
“I think my colleagues will now see that we have a role to play to protect immigrants,” he said.
State senators George Amedore, R-46, and Jen Metzger, D-42, and assemblymembers Stephen Hawley, R-139, Brian Manktelow, R-130, and Mark Walczyk, R-116, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
MacCormack said he’s seen the chilling effect among the immigrant community in Columbia County, which has been particularly problematic in terms of domestic violence cases.
“We’ve had cases around domestic violence where people are afraid to go to police and scared to go to court as a witness to testify,” MacCormack said. “It impedes the judicial process.”
With her aggressive defense of the Green Light NY law, and now the lawsuit to deter ICE from arresting immigrants at courthouses, MacCormack said he thinks “it’s an overall positive sign of the Attorney General’s Office championing immigrant New Yorkers.”