News & Politics

Court Officers Are Aiding in Immigration Arrests, Say Lawyers

ICE agents have now arrested 69 immigrants at city courthouses this year, and lawyers say state officers are abetting Trump’s crackdown

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Ishmael Garcia-Velasquez wore a suit and tie to Brooklyn Criminal Court on Tuesday morning. The 35-year-old father has made routine appearances over the past seven months on petit larceny and misdemeanor assault charges, according to his lawyer. But this time, after yet another adjournment, plainclothes agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement handcuffed Garcia-Velasquez outside of the courtroom. Several court officers helped usher him into a private elevator reserved for inmates and out of the courthouse, one witness said.

There was no apparent reason for Garcia-Velasquez, a noncitizen originally from Mexico, to have been targeted, his Legal Aid Society attorney, Rebecca Kavanagh, tells the Voice. “He had no record and no previous removal order,” she explains. “He just has nothing like that and it’s just really upsetting.”

Prosecutors charge that Garcia-Velasquez punched his ex-wife’s boyfriend and took the man’s wallet, though Garcia-Velasquez maintains his innocence. He has twice rejected a plea that would land him five days of community service. “It’s a matter of principle,” Kavanagh says. “He was determined not to plead to anything.”

As of Tuesday, Garcia-Velasquez was the 38th person to be escorted from a New York City courthouse in ICE custody since February, according to the state Office of Court Administration. The Immigrant Defense Project, a legal services and advocacy organization that has been monitoring the phenomenon, says that including arrests made outside of city court buildings, Garcia-Velasquez’s was the 67th city courthouse arrest so far this year.

By mid-morning Wednesday, that count had been brought up to 69, as ICE arrested two more noncitizens at Brooklyn Criminal Court, OCA confirmed: Jasmine Rowe and Jaime Buestan were both taken into custody in the hallway outside of a courtroom after their misdemeanor assault cases were adjourned until January. Rowe, like Garcia-Velasquez, is a parent with no criminal record, according to her lawyer. She also maintains her innocence, and has refused to plea.

Since President Donald Trump widened the immigration enforcement dragnet early this year, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo have taken pains to assure noncitizens that city and state employees, including police officers, will not assist ICE in deporting local residents. But courthouses, which ICE can enter freely, fall outside of city and state jurisdiction. They are the purview of OCA.

“We do not facilitate or impede ICE when they effect an arrest,” OCA spokesperson Lucian Chalfen tells the Voice. ICE agents must announce themselves when they enter a courthouse and can’t make arrests inside courtrooms. Beyond that, says Chalfen, “We ensure that their activity does not cause disruption or compromise public safety in the courthouse.”

“In maintaining order they are assisting the [deportation] process,” Kavanagh counters. “It’s one thing that ICE is able to make these arrests in court. It’s quite another that they are being accommodated the way they are” by court officers.

In Garcia-Velasquez’s case, says Legal Aid senior attorney Melissa Kanas, the arrest could not have been facilitated so smoothly without court officers’ help. Kanas, who was present in the court at the time, managed to take one picture of the arrest for her colleague Kavanagh to tweet out as a warning to other noncitizens, then attempted to follow Garcia-Velasquez through a set of double doors to the inmate elevator. Though the doors also lead to the clerk’s office, which is open to the public, she says a court officer stopped her.

Court Officers Association president Dennis Quirk insists that his officers did not stray from protocol during Garcia-Velasquez’s arrest on Tuesday. “First of all, we didn’t step in,” he says. “We were in the hallway because we knew what was going to go down, and we’re in the hallway to prevent any further altercation.”

Kanas was denied access to the elevator, says Quick, because the inmate elevator is private.

“Legal Aid knows damn well that if ICE is there and knows who they’re taking, they’re going to take them,” he adds. “So what is the purpose of creating this commotion in the hallway? All they do is alarm everybody else that’s there. They create a public nuisance.”

Federal immigration enforcement in courthouses has spiked under Trump. The IDP counted 110 arrests and attempted arrests at courthouses statewide this year, a nearly 900 percent increase over the 11 courthouse arrests and attempted arrests counted in all of 2016.

As word spreads of ICE arrests in courthouses, more and more immigrants are choosing to just stay home, dropping cases against predatory employees and abusive spouses for fear of being deported.

Carmen Maria Rey, the deputy director of the Immigration Intervention Project at Sanctuary for Families, describes the plight of one client, a 37-year-old Central American woman who didn’t seek to regain custody of her daughter from an abusive partner out of fear that she’d be arrested at court. He “has told her all the time that if she goes into proceedings, he’ll call immigration on her. He’ll know exactly where she’ll be,” says Rey. “Does she try to negotiate with the father to see her daughter again, or does she get deported and never see her daughter again?”

In New York City, where about 400,000 residents are undocumented, the share of the population affected is not trivial. And with the federal government’s decision to wind down portions of the Temporary Protected Status program, and no legislative replacement yet for the recently canceled Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, the ranks of the fearful could very well swell in the coming months.

Lee Wang, a staff attorney with IDP, says that in court buildings, ICE agents benefit from what she describes as a dangerous “fraternity among law enforcement.”

Since February, her group has kept a running list of instances where court officers allegedly assist ICE in making an arrest. So far, OCA agents had allegedly assisted at least twelve times, based on witness and attorney interviews. (OCA declined to comment on specific incidents.)

In one sworn affidavit to IDP, attorney Katherine Bajuk of New York County Defender Services described an arrest that took place on April 5, when one of her clients was in court on a second-degree robbery charge. The client, a sexual assault survivor, was exiting the courtroom with two lawyers when, she says, ICE agents and one court officer intervened. The two lawyers “were stopped at the door by ICE and one court officer assisting them,” Bajuk wrote, “and excluded from the area between the two sets of doors where the arrest took place and not allowed to witness her arrest even though we requested access.”

Quirk, the union head, says OCA officers will help ICE under certain circumstances. “If a fight breaks out and they are having a difficulty, we would assist any law enforcement person,” he says. “But other than that we are not involved. If we are attempting to arrest, and ICE is there, they’d help us. That’s what law enforcement does.”

“I understand that as an impulse,” says Wang. “But then there’s also the question of who are [court officers] there to serve and protect? They are there to ensure the orderly operation and safety in courts. The idea that rogue ICE agents are picking people up is undermining the safety of the courts. That seems like a conflict.”

Asked to comment on the risks noncitizens face in court, mayoral spokesperson Seth Stein said, “Over-broad federal immigration enforcement in courts is a threat to public safety that discourages victims, witnesses, and defendants from coming forward.” He also stressed that courts are under OCA’s jurisdiction.

Any change in court officer directives would come from the state’s chief judge, Janet DiFiore. “We maintain a continuing dialogue, and have met with federal officials on a local and national level to convey our concerns and request that they treat courthouses as sensitive locations,” says OCA’s Chalfen. (ICE already considers schools and places of worship “sensitive,” and discourages agents from making arrests inside of them.) Chalfen adds that OCA leadership has “held several lengthy meetings with the defense bar and advocates, and are always available to further discuss the issue.”

If legal advocates want to prevent ICE arrests in courts, Quirk says, they should file suit to prevent it. Legal Aid “may be 100 percent right in that politically, and legally, ICE shouldn’t be doing what they’re doing,” he surmises. “But we have a president of the United States who has directed them to do their duty.”

One policy change floated by advocates would be to require agents entering courthouses to have a judicial warrant in hand, instead of camping in corridors waiting for possible targets. Judicial warrants have to be reviewed and signed by a judge, while immigration warrants can easily be issued at will by ICE’s own staff.

Once an immigrant is in ICE custody, regardless of his innocence in criminal court, attorneys have little recourse. Until Tuesday, Garcia-Velasquez had worked at a diner and picked up his six-year-old daughter from school each day. As of Wednesday night, more than 24 hours after his arrest, Kavanagh had not been able to make contact with him. In ICE’s hands, she concedes, “sometimes people literally disappear.”

Kavanagh compares Garcia-Velasquez’s arrest and the two that followed to September 14, when ICE agents arrested four men outside of Brooklyn Criminal Court in one go. That day, she says, a large group of reporters descended. She sees these individual courthouse arrests, in murky consort with court officers, as “much more surreptitious.”

“It just becomes the norm,” she adds. “And that’s a real problem.”

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