For weeks, politicians, criminal justice advocates, and community groups have sparred over how best New York City can protect its immigrants from Donald Trump’s administration.
On one side, Mayor Bill de Blasio has been promising a “sanctuary” to immigrants, where the city’s correctional system has been steadfastly refusing to honor most of the federal governments requests to hand over deportable individuals in custody.
On the other, immigrant advocates, attorneys, and community groups claim there is no “sanctuary” in New York City while the NYPD continues to pursue a policing policy that overwhelmingly targets communities of color, creating criminal records that the Trump administration now deems sufficient for deportation priority.
The debate continued Tuesday afternoon on the steps of City Hall, as activist and community groups hammered a proposal by City Councilman Rory Lancman for shifting quality-of-life offenses from criminal to civil courts, a seeming compromise with de Blasio’s hard line on Broken Windows, but possibly not enough to help save New York City’s immigrant communities from the reality of Trump’s deportation apparatus.
Lancman, whose proposal is supported by almost every major public defense organization told the crowd outside City Hall that the shifting of arrests to summonses was the most expedient way to keep immigrants off the radar of DHS, and that the mayor has the power to do this singlehandedly, but refuses to do so.
“The reality is Bill de Blasio’s Broken Windows policing is the fuel of Donald Trump’s deportation machine, and we are here today to call on the mayor to act within the authority he already possesses, to realize all this talk that we hear about protecting immigrant New Yorkers,” Lancman said.
Community and police accountability groups countered that Lancman’s proposal would simply change the categorization for offenses that shouldn’t lead to penalties or arrest in the first place, all while still putting immigrants at risk for deportation.
On Tuesday the Department of Homeland Security released new guidelines on how to carry out President Trump’s January 25th Executive Order, which radically alters the way that Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will prioritize immigrants for arrest and possible deportation. According to the new guidelines, even a civil summons for a misdemeanor crime would now make any removable non-citizen a priority for arrest.
“It’s important to put our message out there that Broken Windows policing has to end in all aspects, not just shifting to civil summonses or relying on the police commissioner or mayor’s promises to make changes,” said Dennis Flores, an organizer at El Grito de Sunset Park, who read a statement opposing Lancman’s proposal at the press conference. Flores’s organization is part of the Coalition to End Broken Windows, which yesterday launched a website offering substantive policy proposals to end Broken Windows policing entirely, such as ending quality-of-life arrests, removing of street vendor license caps, and reducing the overall NYPD headcount.
Lancman said at the press conference he was in favor of ending Broken Windows, but also wanted to press the mayor to do everything in his power right now to stop putting immigrants on ICE’s radars. To Lancman, that means avoiding arrests, where fingerprints get automatically shared with the FBI, and, in turn, the Department of Homeland Security.
Last year, the City Council reached an agreement with the NYPD to create civil offenses that mirror criminal offenses on low-level charges, like fare-beating. The NYPD has yet to issue guidelines for when officers can give a summons instead of making an arrest however, and communities of color are still being arrested by the NYPD in large numbers for violations like fare-beating or low-level marijuana possession. According to recently released numbers from the NYPD, 2,000 people were arrested for fare-beating in January alone; 5502 people were given summonses.
Tina Luongo, an attorney who heads the criminal practice at Legal Aid, who also spoke at the press conference, told the Voice that while their group supports Lancman’s proposal, which provides some immediate help for the city’s immigrants, the overriding goal should be ending Broken Windows policing.
“We stand here recognizing the damage done by decades of low-level policing and the convictions that comes out of that,” Luongo said. “This is wrecking lives, pulling apart communities, and here we are, after the release of the guidelines, unfortunately telling the mayor we told you so. So what are we going to do to protect people? That’s where the city council and the mayor has to stand strong and not parse between law-abiding immigrants and non-law abiding immigrants. We need to stand strong for all immigrants.”
At the press conference, Luongo called on the City Council to move quickly on speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito’s declaration last week that the District Attorneys of each borough (with the exception of Staten Island) would work to clear thousands of old warrants for low-level offenses.
And while old summonses lead to warrants, which could end with an arrest and the alerting of federal authorities, new summonses, like the ones that Lancman is proposing, can pose a danger to immigrants as well. At the press conference, Stan Germán, the Executive Director of New York County Defender Services, revealed that ICE agents had been spotted in city courthouses this week. According to Germán, an ICE agent apprehended an individual at 100 Centre Street on Saturday as they were appearing on misdemeanor assault charges. Also according to Germán, ICE agents were spotted in misdemeanor court again on Tuesday morning. ICE has been stalking the city’s courthouses for years, picking up people when they appear for court dates for summonses. This only adds credence to the belief by those who have been rallying against Broken Windows for years that shifting violations to civil summonses won’t actually fix the problem.
“Is a summons better than a criminal conviction? Probably,” Luongo told the Voice. “But with an administration in Washington that’s set to do harm, we’re concerned that even if we take a moment and switch to only civil summons, we won’t be looking back a month from now saying, ‘Oh god, what did we do?’”
Luongo hopes the City Council will hold a hearing to discuss what actually constitutes a “sanctuary city,” instead of just having the mayor bandy the term about without committing to substantive protections for New York City’s immigrants.
Last week, City Hall reiterated de Blasio’s commitment to Broken Windows policing, even as the fallout from Trump’s executive order was becoming clearer. “The Mayor wisely believes that the response to a broken federal immigration policy should not be to break a local criminal justice policy that has helped make our city the safest big city in the country – for documented and undocumented New Yorkers,” mayoral spokesman Eric Phillips told the Voice.
On Tuesday, de Blasio lashed out at ICE for arresting an undocumented immigrant accused of being a gang member after he had been released from New York City jails. The man, Estivan Velasquez, spent five months on Rikers Island before pleading guilty to disorderly conduct, a violation, and was quickly arrested by ICE on his release from Rikers last Thursday. According to ICE, Velazquez had admitted to being a member of the MS-13 gang during prior arrests. Disorderly conduct is one of the most popular quality-of-life offenses that the NYPD slaps on those they arrest, and ICE would most likely not have been able to locate Velazquez if he hadn’t been arrested and incarcerated by de Blasio’s NYPD.