Members of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys and hundreds of supporting organizations rallied at Borough Hall last Thursday to call on the Office of Court Administration (OCA) to bar immigration agents from entering state courts.
Advocates said they were frustrated that court officers seemed to be compliant with ICE when taking away their client.
“They are literally handing people over to ICE,” said Rage Kidvai, an attorney with the Sylvia Rivera Law Project.
On November 28, 30-year-old Genaro Rojas-Hernandez showed up at Brooklyn Criminal Court on charges of domestic violence. Prior to the hearing, the judge notified his attorney, Rebecca Kavanagh, that ICE agents were waiting outside the room to arrest Hernandez.
Kavanagh went to go speak with her client through a Spanish interpreter. Two ICE agents then “snatched” Hernandez, attorneys said, and took him to a restricted area.
According to reports, a court officer sergeant and two other officers helped in the arrest, and even held back Kavanagh, prompting a physical altercation.
Legal Aid attorney Jane Sampeur, who witnessed the incident, said the immigration agents took Hernandez before he could speak with his lawyers and before his case was called. That’s when 100 Legal Aid attorneys walked out of the courthouse in protest.
“Public defenders in Brooklyn were pissed,” Kidvai said. “We staged a walkout, we picketed.”
“After watching this arrest, Legal Aid attorneys had reached their boiling point,” Sampeur added. “We wanted to make sure they knew this is not something we’re going to stand for.”
According to reports, Hernandez was the 40th individual taken into custody inside a New York City courthouse by ICE. But advocates from the Immigration Defense Project say that number is closer to 70 people.
Sampeur said the criminal justice system is already a frightening experience for most of their clients. Add in the possibility of being arrested by ICE inside a courthouse, it becomes even worse for undocumented people.
“The idea of choosing whether or not to address the charges before them and fight the allegations or be ripped from their families is ridiculous,” she said. “It’s not something any of our clients should ever have to consider.”
ICE policy prevents agents from entering “sensitive” locations such as schools and churches. But courthouses are not among those locations, which Sampeur said is wrong.
“What’s more sensitive than fighting for your freedom? What’s more sensitive than court proceedings that will determine the trajectory of your life?” she said. “If that’s not a sensitive location, I don’t know what is considered a sensitive location.”
According to City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, ICE arrests in courthouses have increased by 900 percent since the Trump administration began increasing enforcement.
The speaker said she has spoken to OCA about this issue, but their protocols “have not done enough” to keep ICE out, she said.
Mark-Viverito joined the advocates in calling for a total ban of ICE from New York courthouses.
“OCA’s leadership must take action now,” she said. “It is their duty to protect the integrity of our judicial system, a system that has come under increased attack by this president.
“We cannot allow this president and his agents to disrupt the judicial system, a key pillar to our democracy,” she added, “and discouraging folks from going to court to seek justice, which gravely undermines our public safety.”
During Mark-Viverito’s remarks, a man in the crowd attempted to shout her down, denouncing the policy of broken windows policing. Advocates at the rally agreed that if it wasn’t for broken windows, fewer people would be showing up to the courts for low-level crimes in the first place.
Amanda Jack, an attorney with Brooklyn Defender Services, said she has seen the “paralyzing effect” that a plainclothes ICE agent “stalking through the hallways and lobbies” of a courthouse can have on people.
“ICE absolutely understands they are terrorizing people to the point of paralyzing the court system,” she said. “This is why ICE policy discourages questioning or arresting people in other institutions like schools and churches.”
She said while elected officials, court officials and the district attorney have all acknowledged this effect, they have not done enough to keep ICE out. Jack suggested a slew of immediate policy changes, such as ending information sharing with ICE and prohibiting courthouse arrests.
She also recommended that the district attorneys of New York City decline to prosecute low-level broken windows offenses before an arraignment.
Another suggestion was excusing clients who have immigration concerns from attending “all non-essential court appearances.” Finally, Jack demanded the end of asking for bail on low-level offenses.
“We are in every court, we are there everyday and every night,” she said. “We will hold you to account.”