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Prosecutors and defenders sue ICE over arrests in and around courthouses

The lawsuits could expand protections for undocumented people

September 25, 2019 Noah Goldberg

Prosecutors and public defenders teamed up Wednesday to announce lawsuits against the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement for arrests of undocumented people in courthouses, which have spiked across New York state since President Trump took office.

Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez and New York State Attorney General Letitia James sued ICE over the arrests, arguing that they impede the administration of justice and take away state sovereignty. The city’s largest public defender organization, the Legal Aid Society, along with law firm Cleary Gottlieb, also sued ICE in a separate suit. Immigration enforcement officers arrested 35 people in and around Brooklyn courts in 2018, more than in any other borough.

“Unfortunately, a two-year pattern of civil immigration arrests by federal ICE agents in and around state courts has caused a major disruption to state court operations,” James said at a press conference in Manhattan. “It deters non-citizens and immigrants from assisting state and local law enforcement efforts or protecting their own right in court.”

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“Over the past two years, numerous immigrant victims and witnesses have refused to come forward and assist in our prosecutions out of fear that they’ll be arrested in court by immigration agents, forcing my office to dismiss or reduce serious criminal cases,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez was the only city district attorney included in the lawsuit, though James said she would have welcomed the support of the city’s four other district attorneys.

ICE agents arrest an immigrant outside Queens Criminal Courthouse in January. Photo obtained by the Eagle
ICE agents arrest an immigrant outside Queens Criminal Courthouse in January. Photo obtained by the Eagle

These disruptions [by ICE] significantly impair the ability of New York courts to perform routine functions. New York courts, like all courts, rely on parties and witnesses to attend proceedings,” the lawsuit filed by James and Gonzalez says. 

A bill proposed in the New York State legislature in 2019 would have shielded immigrants from arrest “while going to, remaining at, and returning from” court, but failed to pass during the session.

The state’s Office of Court Administration did issue a directive in April that requires ICE officials to provide a judicial warrant — issued by a federal judge — to the judge presiding over the case of the person ICE wishes to detain. OCA’s directive, however, does not stop ICE from making arrests just outside courthouses — and Gonzalez said that was one of the main points of the lawsuit.


“ICE abuses the safety and security afforded by state courts for federal immigration enforcement purposes,” reads the second lawsuit filed by groups representing immigrants. The plaintiffs in that suit include The Door, Make the Road New York, New York Immigration Coalition, Sanctuary for Families and the Urban Justice Center. The groups are represented by the Legal Aid Society.

Another plaintiff in the suit against ICE is an unnamed undocumented man who would like to go to family court to get an order of protection against an abusive partner.

“He has not commenced an action in New York State family court for an order of protection because he fears being arrested by ICE when appearing in court,” the suit reads.

The Legal Aid Society lawsuit cited numerous New York State cases that ruled that people should be free from civil arrest at courthouses or when coming to court or leaving court.

The lawsuit also cited an incident in Brooklyn, when ICE agents allegedly shouted after a man leaving criminal court.

“When the young man ran, ICE agents tackled him to the ground. Up to this point, they had never identified themselves as law enforcement officers or as ICE agents. The young man’s pregnant companion resisted the agents. They threw her to the ground and put him into a car. Only at this point did they notify the young man that they were ICE agents,” the lawsuit reads.

A spokesperson for ICE said the courthouse arrests are legal — and blamed sanctuary cities for the arrests.

“ICE’s enforcement activities at courthouses are consistent with longstanding law enforcement practices nationwide,” the agency said in a statement. “And, courthouse arrests are often necessitated by the unwillingness of jurisdictions to cooperate with ICE in the transfer of custody of aliens from their prisons and jails.”

ICE does not consider courthouses a “sensitive location” as it does schools, houses of worship and hospitals. In “sensitive locations” ICE does not typically make immigration arrests.


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