When paying a traffic ticket can end in deportation

MIDDLETOWN, N.Y. — After immigration authorities tried to arrest a young man who was paying a traffic ticket at City Hall in April, word spread quickly through this city, where a third of the residents are foreign-born.

When paying a traffic ticket can end in deportation

The effect was immediate, said Joseph M. DeStefano, the mayor of Middletown. The week before the attempted arrest, more than 500 people had visited the building to apply for a new municipal identification program. The week after, about five did, DeStefano said.

“That one incident has completely undermined the immigrant community’s confidence in their ability to come to City Hall or the police station,” he said.

As the Trump administration has widened the pool of people facing deportation, antagonism has grown between the White House and sanctuary cities, which limit cooperation with immigration authorities.

In New York and New Jersey, efforts to curb cooperation have gone even further. The states recently banned immigration agents from arresting unauthorized migrants in state courthouses. Municipalities in at least four other states have imposed similar rules.

In New York, however, the regulations do not apply to the approximately 1,300 courts in towns and villages, a sprawling system that handles everyday issues such as minor criminal offenses and evictions.

DeStefano is among a group of people pushing the state Legislature to extend the ban to these local courts — another flashpoint in the debate over how much power sanctuary cities should have to restrict federal law enforcement.

“It sets a dangerous precedent where states decide which federal laws they will abide and which they won’t abide,” said state Sen. Robert G. Ortt, a Republican who represents Niagara and Orleans counties in upstate New York. “This bill almost criminalizes federal law enforcement for doing their job.”

The current version of the bill in Albany would allow the attorney general to bring a lawsuit on behalf of anyone arrested in a courthouse against the federal officer who made the arrest.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement policy prohibits agents from arresting people in certain “sensitive locations,” including hospitals and schools, to preserve the public trust. But in January 2018, the then-acting director of ICE, Thomas D. Homan, issued a directive clearing the path for agents to make arrests in courthouses.

The memo said courthouses were a safer place to confront immigrants than homes or workplaces because people were screened for weapons before they enter.

The decision touched off an angry response among some in law enforcement, who said ICE arrests at courthouses could lead some immigrants to avoid the entire justice system.

“If you’re afraid to come forward out of fear of being swept up and deported, how many heinous crimes will go unreported?” said Craig D. Apple Sr., sheriff of Albany County. “If people are afraid to come to me and speak with me, then we have a problem.”

ICE officials said their agents turn to courthouses only as a last resort, especially in sanctuary cities where law enforcement officers have declined to cooperate with immigration authorities.

“Absent a viable address for a residence or place of employment, a courthouse may afford the most likely opportunity to locate a target and take him or her into custody,” Rachael Yong Yow, an ICE spokeswoman, said in a statement.

The New York State Office of Court Administration, which governs court procedures in the state, instituted new rules in April prohibiting immigration agents from arresting migrants in courthouses without a warrant signed by a judge. The rules do not apply to local courts, which operate outside of OCA control.

There were 54 such arrests made in state courts in 2017; 26 in 2018; and six this year, according to the OCA.

But those numbers do not include arrests just outside courthouses or at local courts. The Immigrant Defense Project, a nonprofit organization that helped push for the ban, said it had tracked a 1,700% increase in arrests in and around courthouses across New York between 2016 and 2018.

Bryan MacCormack, who works with the Columbia County Sanctuary Movement to accompany immigrants to courthouses, estimated that 30 immigrants in his grassroots network have been arrested in the past two years, at least half in local courts.

“What ICE is doing has become a lot more frequent and aggressive here,” MacCormack said.

Supporters of the New York bill argued that courthouse arrests target not just people who have been accused of a crime but also families, victims or witnesses, undermining trust in all law enforcement.

Calls reporting crimes to the Brooklyn district attorney’s Immigration Affairs Unit decreased 67% from 2016 through 2018, while calls to the Nassau County district attorney’s immigrant affairs office fell 84%.

“I have cases with witnesses who are scared to death about coming forward and participating in these trials now,” said Anthony A. Scarpino Jr., the district attorney of Westchester County.

Before the Trump administration, prosecutors said they worked closely with federal law enforcement agencies to offer protections, such as visas, to unauthorized immigrants who were crime victims, if they cooperated with law enforcement.

But in the past two years, requests for certifications for that type of visa, known as a U visa, to New York City Family Courts declined 25%, according to data collected by the Immigrant Defense Project.

M.C., an unauthorized immigrant who asked to be identified by her initials because of her immigration status, said she decided to take her chances in January when she had to appear in the Ramapo courthouse in Rockland County because of a civil dispute with her ex-boyfriend.

“I knew that people said ICE came to this court on Tuesday, but that’s when my hearing was, and I thought that even if they were there, they wouldn’t be there for me,” M.C. said. She was arrested as she left the courthouse but was later released from ICE custody.

In towns and villages, local courts are often in or near municipal buildings, where other services are offered.

“This isn’t just about going to court. No one is going to go get a municipal ID or go to a community meeting with the mayor if they think ICE might be around that building,” said Ignacio Acevedo, a community organizer in Middletown with Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson, an advocacy organization.

The restrictions on ICE arrests have been criticized by court officers, who say the rules put them in a difficult position.

“If we are creating separate policies for different agencies, that creates confusion,” said Patrick Cullen, president of the New York Supreme Court Officers Association, one of the unions representing court officers. “What message does that send? That we are to provide a safe environment for some laws to be upheld but not others?”

About a week after the new regulations were passed, senior state court officials held a conference call with court officers. Federal prosecutors had just charged a Massachusetts state judge and a former court officer there with helping an unauthorized immigrant sneak out of a district courthouse because they knew that an ICE agent was waiting to arrest him in the lobby.

Lucian Chalfen, an OCA spokesman, said the call was intended to reiterate the new policy and to allay officers’ concerns about the Massachusetts case. But some court officers heard a warning: Do not interrupt any ICE arrests.

“The message was that Immigration and Customs Enforcement was free to do what they have to do, and we are not to interfere,” said Dennis W. Quirk, president of the New York State Court Officers Association, another union representing court officers in New York.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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