How Broken Windows Policing Breaks NYC’s Immigrant Sanctuaries


Since November 9, New York City politicians have been jockeying to prove their commitment to protecting the city’s immigrants from a Trump administration. “We are not going to sacrifice half a million people who live among us and are part of our community,” Mayor Bill de Blasio told reporters just days after the election. City Council members have touted as proof NYC’s “sanctuary city” status, which discourages coordination between local law enforcement and federal immigration authorities.

But neither City Council nor City Hall has made any effort or promise to reform the largest existing threat to the city’s immigrant communities — the NYPD’s use of so-called “broken windows” policing, a policy that, in criminalizing even the smallest of offenses, puts thousands of immigrants in danger.

Even though the NYPD no longer openly shares information with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and does not hold nonviolent detainees in custody for ICE to pick up, the city still fingerprints every person it arrests. Those fingerprints are then sent to the FBI, which shares them with the Department of Homeland Security; even if a district attorney declines to press charges, an immigrant is put at immediate risk of being found by ICE, which is under orders to locate and detain immigrants with criminal convictions. And it’s not as if ICE doesn’t already have a pervasive presence in the city. Agents prowl courthouses looking for immigrants caught up in the criminal justice system and, under the Obama administration’s aggressive policies, conduct hundreds of raids throughout the five boroughs — practices that yielded 1,255 deportations in 2015 alone. According to ICE, the vast majority of those deportations resulted from “targeted enforcement actions,” where ICE took people with criminal convictions from their homes.

“Broken windows policing has created [a fear of deportation] for thousands of people, many of whom are just hardworking New Yorkers,” says Tina Luongo, who heads the criminal practice at Legal Aid, an organization that provides free legal assistance to the city’s indigent. “If we’re a sanctuary city, we should really mean it, from policing to prosecuting.”

So far in 2016, misdemeanor arrests accounted for two-thirds of all arrests in New York City, with 86.5 percent of those arrests targeting people of color. With over 3.7 million immigrants residing in the five boroughs, the numbers demonstrate that the NYPD’s reliance on broken windows policing has created a veritable dragnet for federal authorities to use at their will. President-elect Trump has already pledged to deport 2 to 3 million immigrants with criminal records, keeping intact Obama-era policies that prioritize deporting immigrants (even those here legally) who have been convicted of crimes.

“If the city keeps arresting people like this, then people are just going to keep going through the pipeline,” said Jessica Swensen, an immigration attorney at the Bronx Defenders. Many of her clients face removal after loitering, turnstile-jumping, and other low-level “quality of life” offenses. “If New York has decided itself to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, but is OK with having that same offense mean you can be deported, there’s something wrong with that.”

And undocumented immigrants aren’t the only ones at risk, says Genia Blaser, a staff attorney at the Immigrant Defense Project. “Broken windows policing [also] has a really negative impact on documented individuals, people with green cards, refugees, asylees, people who are here on visas,” Blaser told the Voice. “People [are] picked up for low-level offenses, and it’s the arrest, the fingerprinting itself, that triggers the contact with ICE and puts people at such great risk of being picked up.”

While undocumented immigrants can be deported at any time by ICE, those here legally are subject to deportation through “crimes of moral turpitude,” which include charges like carrying a knife or trespassing. If Trump heeds the advice of Kris Kobach, Kansas’s Secretary of State and architect of Arizona’s notorious racial profiling law S.B. 1070 , the situation would likely worsen. After meeting with Trump earlier this month, Kobach was photographed holding a raft of policy recommendations for the new president, including targeting for deportation “any alien arrested for any crime” (italics his). Under such a policy, broken windows arrests wouldn’t just put immigrants at risk of deportation; they’d be cause for deportation. (Italics mine.)

At a press conference last week, mayor De Blasio told the Voice that he would look into the fingerprinting situation and get back to us. Since then, the City Hall press office has defended the use of broken windows policing of immigrant communities, referring to a 2014 law meant to ensure that “nonviolent individuals are not inappropriately detained and transferred to federal custody for removal,” and has adopted a wait-and-see approach. Until Trump’s deportation strategy goes live, says press secretary Eric Phillips, “it’s impossible to know right now if it would be smart to alter on-the-ground criminal enforcement.” The delay underlines a dire irony: for many residents, the promise sanctuary never arrived, until broken windows is ended or reformed, it remains a long way off.