Since Donald Trump was elected president, both the NYPD and City Hall have worked to try to assure New York City’s immigrant community that the police would not help Trump’s federal government deport anyone who was not found guilty of a serious crime. “Even if you’re a recidivist and jumped a turnstile for the fourth or tenth time, and we arrest you for the misdemeanor crime, that’s a misdemeanor,” NYPD Deputy Commissioner for Legal Affairs Larry Byrne told reporters at a press conference on Friday. “Nobody is getting deported for a minor offense.”
Several legal and immigrant advocates have pointed out that Byrne’s statement was false.
“The NYPD is conflating two separate issues,” Andrea Sáenz, supervising immigration attorney for the Brooklyn Defenders, told the Voice in a statement.
Sáenz added that while the NYPD will not hold someone so they can turn them over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement — referred to as a “detainer” — for a charge of jumping a subway turnstile, a theft of services conviction is considered a “crime involving moral turpitude” under the Immigration and Naturalization Act, which means ICE considers it a removable offense.
“With or without a detainer, ICE can arrest people at home, work, and court, detain them or release them, and give them a court date for deportation proceedings in which their charges are based on offenses like fare-evasion and counterfeit handbags,” Sáenz says. “This absolutely happens to New Yorkers, even if the NYPD is not aware of it. This is a perfect example of how ICE detainers are only one link in a chain that ties our clients to the detention and deportation system.”
According to a FOIA obtained by Queens Neighborhoods United, a community organization based in Jackson Heights and Corona, Queens, more than 1,100 immigrants were arrested in just Queens and Nassau counties between September 1st, 2015 and April 12th, 2016, before President Trump substantially lowered the bar for what constitutes a priority for immigration enforcement.
Many of these arrests, according to interviews with immigration defense lawyers, stem from low-level violations or a situation where ICE was alerted to an immigrant’s location based on a low-level arrest, and then arrested the individual based on a much, much older conviction.
Under the new enforcement priorities, almost all undocumented immigrants are now priorities for arrest by ICE. Green card holders with previous criminal offenses that make them “removable” under the INA are now also a priority, no matter how old the offense is.
What Byrne failed to make abundantly clear was that he was referring solely to the city’s detainer law, and not to whether ICE itself could make an arrest and begin removal proceedings of an immigrant based on a low-level offense that was given to them by the NYPD. To his credit, later in the same interview, Byrne made that distinction, but that was after he had made the misleading comments. The NYPD’s spin machine was off-and-running.
“Larry Byrne sets the record straight: Turnstile jumping won’t get you deported, despite what advocates claim,” J. Peter Donald, the NYPD’s Assistant Commissioner for Communication & Public Information, wrote on Twitter.
When pressed by reporters as to what exactly he was referring to, Donald said he was speaking only about the city’s detainer law, and that advocates and media had been claiming that the NYPD was turning over immigrants directly to ICE for low-level offenses. Donald declined to specify which media outlets or advocates had been saying that, however. (Ironically, on Sunday, one of the NYPD’s unions demanded that police be allowed to assist ICE, perhaps helping to spread the idea among immigrant communities that police officers willingly coordinate with federal immigration enforcement).
To advocates, it appeared that the NYPD was purposefully obfuscating their role in order to save face and keep New York City in line with the “sanctuary city” image its mayor continues to project, even as his steadfast support of Broken Windows policing puts immigrants at risk of deportation for something as petty as jumping a turnstile.
On Saturday, the mayor himself picked up the NYPD spokesperson’s thread: “We became the safest big city in America in part because all of our neighbors feel they can trust the NYPD,” de Blasio’s account tweeted, along with a link and caption from an article where Byrne claimed that “nobody is getting deported for a minor offense.”
Over the past several weeks, the de Blasio administration has refused to acknowledge the extent of the threat that low-level arrests pose to the city’s immigrants, at times showing a lack of understanding of federal immigration laws in both emails and phone calls with the Village Voice. It has often confused the city’s detainer law, which protects immigrants in custody (unless they are arrested for one of 170 “serious” felonies) with what can happen on city streets after an arrest has been made by the NYPD.
And while it’s understandable that the mayor and NYPD would seek to reassure immigrant communities that the police pose no direct threat to their safety, as long as the NYPD is making arrests for low-level nonviolent offenses, it is putting immigrants in harm’s way. Until the NYPD stops doing that, saying “no one would be deported for jumping a turnstile,” remains not only demonstrably untrue, but dangerously misleading to the city’s immigrant community.