Since last year, immigration agents have been making arrests far more frequently in New York City’s courthouses, sparking outrage from lawyers, district attorneys and activists.
Their fight has been with the federal authorities. But now, a rift has erupted along local lines.
It started when agents for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE, detained two unauthorized immigrants who had come to Queens Criminal Court on minor charges. In protest, lawyers for the Legal Aid Society of New York and Queens Law Associates staged a walkout, saying ICE should stay out of courthouses. It was the second such walkout this week, and the fifth in the last year.
The Office of Court Administration, which oversees the courts in New York state, responded by fulfilling a warning it had made an hour earlier: If the public defenders walked out on the job while court was still in session, cases would be reassigned to private defense lawyers under contract to represent the poor. Ten cases were reassigned.
The public defense organizations saw it as punishment for political advocacy; court administrators saw it as a matter of keeping the courts running.
“We say, ‘By you doing what you did, you are disrupting operations,'” said Lucian Chalfen, the spokesman for the OCA. “We won’t have that. It helps no one.”
Chalfen added: “Yesterday was the day that enough was enough.”
Tuesday was the first time the state judiciary had taken such a step, which was first reported by WNYC.org.
Directors for Legal Aid were infuriated by the court’s suggestion they were abandoning their clients, but agreed on one point: “'Enough is enough’ — with ICE taking our clients,” said Justine Luongo, the chief of Legal Aid’s criminal defense practice, in an interview Wednesday.
Luongo insisted several times that Legal Aid lawyers never left a court unattended to participate in the noon walkout; she said it drew between 50 and 70 people, including many staff members who had not been in court that morning. When a Legal Aid supervisor checked on the arraignment court before the 1 p.m. lunch break, there were no cases to be called, she said.
The lawyers returned when court reconvened at 2:15 p.m.
Legal Aid charged that court administrators deliberately, and deceptively, reassigned those cases during the lunch hour to retaliate against people taking a stand on the issue. Chalfen disputed that: “We’re not in the business of fooling them; we’re in the business of running courts,” he said. He suggested the lawyers protest outside of court hours.
The public defenders are paid a salary and will not lose earnings because defendants were assigned to private lawyers. But Luongo said the decision had damaged Legal Aid’s reputation.
“None of us want to feel like we’re fighting both the federal government and the state,” she said, adding that the defenders and OCA have been discussing the issue for months.
The public defenders say that courthouses should be treated as what are known as “sensitive locations,” like schools, hospitals and places of worship, where ICE agents generally do not enter. New York state Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman and other officials have also said that the courthouses should be off limits, and that immigration authorities were interfering with the criminal justice system, making witnesses and defendants afraid to appear in court.
State policy prohibits ICE officers from making arrests inside courtrooms. They must do their work in a hallway or outside a building.
ICE has said that it goes to courthouses in New York because security screening there makes it safer than trying to detain people in the community — which ICE says it is forced to do by a 2014 law that generally prohibits correction officers in city jails from holding unauthorized immigrants convicted of crimes for ICE to detain.
Courts are open to the public, and court administrators have no authority to bar ICE from them.
The Immigrant Defense Project, a nonprofit organization that has been tracking arrests, said that ICE has arrested 24 people since January in or around city courthouses. The court administration’s figures show that ICE has made 26 appearances at city courts, arresting six people, including one in the Bronx that led to this week’s first protest.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.