Why Are the Feds Stalking Immigrants at Courthouses in New York?

City courthouses are the latest front in an ongoing battle between local officials and immigration agents eager to fill their detainee quota.

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Dec 9 2015, 7:00pm

Bronx County Courthouse in New York. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

At a Bronx courthouse in early August, a defense lawyer made a rather unusual request: that the judge set bail and immediately take their client into custody. The judge told the lawyer that no bail was necessary and that the defendant, Teddy Irving*, was free to go. But Irving's lawyer knew that leaving the courtroom not in the custody of the Department of Correction (DOC) could very well end with her client never stepping foot in the country as a free man again.

Behind Irving stood two plainclothes Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers, who moments before had tried to arrest him in the hallway of the courthouse, he told me. The officers had arrived as part of an extensive effort by ICE to circumvent a New York City statute that limits local law enforcement's collaboration with the federal agency. After a lengthy explanation by the defense lawyer as to why they were arguing in favor of the very thing they usually fight against, the judge relented, and Irving (who has a green card) was taken into custody.

For now, Irving was safely in the hands of the New York City criminal justice system.

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"I was waiting for my attorney outside of the courtroom, when two gentlemen who were standing near the entrance to the courthouse both looked down at a sheet of paper, nodded heads and then walked over to me," Irving told me. "They approached me and asked if I had a court appearance. I told them yes. In my mind I'm thinking they're someone from social services. Then they pulled out an ICE ID. They told me they needed to secure me and take me downtown. I told them I was about to see a judge to close out my case, but they said that wasn't important anymore." As the ICE officers escorted Irving out of the courthouse, he caught his attorney's attention, who quickly convinced the two officers to allow her to finish the case, which stemmed from a domestic dispute.

Thanks to the quick thinking of Irving's public defender, he was spared detention by ICE, but across New York City, courthouse arrests of immigrants have become a regular occurrence, according to defense lawyers and advocates. This new tactic has the potential to turn any interaction with the criminal justice system into a months-long nightmare, played out against the backdrop of an intensifying national debate on immigration. Across the country, ICE has ramped up courthouse arrests in recent years, often focusing on individuals with felony convictions from decades ago, like Irving. The city's courtrooms are just the latest battleground.

"ICE is trying to create an environment where it becomes incredibly difficult for cities to pass laws that lower their levels of cooperation with them," Mizue Aizeki, deputy director of the Immigrant Defense Project, a national advocacy group, told me. "What they're saying is, 'Well, you didn't want us to take them from the police or the jails, so we're going to take them from their home, or the courthouses.'"

Last year, New York City joined a growing number of municipalities with laws limiting their cooperation with ICE. The city would no longer detain people for up to 48 hours after their regular release date until the federal agency determined their immigration status. Effectively shut out of the criminal justice system in America's largest city, the agency resorted to courthouse arrests and raids on homeless shelters to help fill their 34,000 detainees per day quota. The quota, a congressional mandate that keeps ICE facilities full at all times, has apparently emboldened the agency to track down individuals with deportable offenses committed decades ago, as well as target individuals who have been arrested for crimes as minor as petty larceny or disorderly conduct.

Sarah Vendzules, an attorney for Brooklyn Defender Services, testified in front of the New York City Council in October on the prevalence of courthouse arrests and home raids that her office was dealing with following the passage of the 2014 reforms, known as the Detainer Discretion Laws.

"ICE is picking people up at the courthouse for things they did maybe 30 years ago, where they now have kids, they have a family here, they're completely rehabilitated and have full-time jobs, and none of that is being taken into consideration by ICE," Vendzules told me.

Coupled with the NYPD's renewed focus on "broken windows" policing under Commissioner Bill Bratton, more and more people are finding themselves involved with the criminal justice system on marginal, quality-of-life arrests. But minor charges have a way of becoming major issues when the feds are desperate for bodies.

"The things that people get picked up for and make them deportable are just so minor," Vendzules said. "Turnstile jumping or using your kid's Metrocard, those are thefts of services and are considered 'crimes involving moral turpitude.' Just two of those make you deportable."

Since ICE can no longer obtain information about non-citizens from the NYPD or DOC without a judicial warrant, they're now scanning court rolls and gathering information from homeless shelters to find individuals they believe to be candidates for deportation, advocates say. A source at ICE's Enforcement and Removal Operations told VICE that as of last week, they had made 27 arrests at or near courthouses in 2015.

"One of the challenges that we face in this modern era is that there's so many ways that information is available to immigration officials," Aizeki told us. "ICE has a pretty extensive surveillance infrastructure. They have a wide range of city and federal employees who will share information with them. Up until last year, it was someone's job at the city probation office to provide address information to ICE so that they could be picked up."

While home raids remain the leading inciting incident for deportation proceedings, courthouse arrests have become an important tool for the feds to find people whose address they don't know, or when they're concerned about the legality of a possible home raid. As Aizeki explains, "I think probably what's happening is ICE is going undercover at courthouses to skirt the constitutional protections people have for letting ICE enter your home without consent."

In a statement, an agency spokesman said, "ICE has specific policies in place that address arrests made at courthouses and other sensitive locations. Such arrests are only considered for cases involving aliens who meet ICE's highest priorities, such as national security threats, gang members and convicted felons. Absent exigent circumstances, immigration arrests made at or near courthouses are planned in advance and approved only after considering other options. When such an arrest is made, ICE officers have developed specific, detailed information about the target, to include photographs and other personally identifiable information."

While the new detainer discretion laws shield individuals like Teddy Irving while they're in custody, that protection can only last so long. After Irving was released from jail and his charges were dropped, he says he received a call from an individual who claimed to be working for the Bronx courts system.

"They wanted my address for some reason, but my case had already been closed," Irving told me. "Once I saw that the area code they were calling from was 212, which is the Manhattan area code... I knew something was fishy. I ended up giving them my mother's address, and soon enough ICE came by her house with multiple officers looking for me."

ICE also contacted Irving's place of work, Irving said, but his employer declined to disclose his hours or address.

"ICE has historically been ruthless in pursuing their quotas," Brooklyn City Councilman and Immigration Committee Chair Carlos Menchaca told me. "We weren't naive enough to think that we wouldn't have to keep battling the federal mandate for detainers. But what we needed to do was to create a space where municipalities can step up and set the tone for new policies that can really help change things on the federal level."

In the meantime, what was already a fraught relationship between immigrant communities and the criminal justice system has deteriorated further. Even centers for essential social services have become targets. "People are afraid to go to court, drug treatment facilities, probation offices," Aizeki said.

"These are tactics by ICE that are fueled by the power of fear," Menchaca added. "We are trying to remove those opportunities for them every step of the way." Among other things, advocates like Mencheca are hoping to expand the requirement of a judicial warrant for immigration arrests to all city courthouses.

In November, Teddy Irving's mother had brain surgery, but he's been unable to drive her to doctor's appointments or visit her with regularity due to fear that the feds might be waiting for him.

"I'm paranoid man, I really am," he said.

It would appear he has every reason to be.

Follow Max Rivlin-Nadler on Twitter.

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