Legal Immigrants Fear Getting Arrested in Court by ICE

Legal immigrants are increasingly afraid that the ICE agents sitting inside the courtroom are there to arrest them and take them away.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

In New York City, immigrants are increasingly worried about going to court, concerned that plainclothes ICE agents will arrest them there. According to attorneys and advocates, newly emboldened Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers have dramatically increased their presence in courthouses, which has left many immigrants—including U.S. citizens and people with green cards—deeply concerned about going to court, sometimes opting to skip hearings out of fear of arrest.

“We have clients who might have perfectly lawful status, who don’t have any prior deportation orders, who are not even deportable,” said Justine Olderman, managing director of Bronx Defenders. “But they don’t necessarily know or understand that they are not in danger.”

Olderman’s group contracts with the city to represent clients who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford to hire lawyers. Many of her group’s clients are immigrants—documented and undocumented—and she said they worry ICE will arrest them and move to deport them if they go to court.

“They’re terrified of coming to court,” she said.

So increasingly, immigrants don’t go. Stan Germán, the executive director of New York County Defender Services, said one of his group’s clients, a lawful permanent resident, saw plainclothes ICE officers make an arrest in a courtroom where he was for a misdemeanor hearing. The man was so frightened by the arrest, according to Germán, that he fled the courtroom and missed his hearing.

Recently, another lawyer in Germán’s group negotiated for the dismissal of charges against one of his clients, an undocumented man with no criminal record. The lawyer told the man the good news, and that he would only need to come to court to get the charges dismissed. The man didn’t show.

“You would think that if your lawyer is saying, ‘Hey, the case is getting dismissed tomorrow, all you have to do is show up,’ why would that person who has no record not show up in court?” Germán said.

These kinds of things didn’t happen during the Obama administration, he added. It wasn’t completely unheard of for ICE agents to show up at courthouses, but it was much less common and people were far less afraid.

“It’s not just undocumented folks,” he added. “It’s lawful permanent residents. ‘I got arrested for smoking a joint five years ago, am I on a list?’ People just don’t know, and they hear so-and-so went to court and got deported, and that kind of stuff spreads like wildfire.”

And it’s hard for attorneys to know what to say to their clients, he said, because ICE has become much more aggressive in New York courts. Last week, agents arrested a man in family court in Brooklyn. He had appeared for a hearing about a child support payment issue, as the New York Law Journal reported.

ICE spokesperson Rachel Yong Yow told that publication that ICE agents show up at courthouses because they are often the easiest places to find people they are looking for.

“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,” she said.

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Advocates said that was the first time they had ever heard of ICE agents showing up in a New York family court.

Nyasa Hickey, supervising attorney at Brooklyn Defenders Services, said she hadn’t seen an uptick in ICE presence in Brooklyn courts, and noted that ICE arrested three of her clients at homeless shelters during the Obama administration. But since Trump’s inauguration, she added, the people she works with are much more frightened than they had been.

“Clients are calling on a daily basis asking, ‘Should I come to court?’” Hickey said.

“Everybody is afraid, including people who are naturalized citizens. I’ve had clients calling me saying, ‘I’m naturalized, is Trump going to take away my citizenship?’”

Lee Wang, a staff attorney at the Immigrant Defense Project, said her group has been counting the number of ICE arrests in courts in New York City for two years now, and that citywide there’s been a major shift under the Trump administration.

Her group knew of 19 total arrests or attempted arrests by ICE agents in 2015 and 2016 combined. Over the last two months, she added, they’ve already heard reports of 13 arrests or attempts.

“These numbers are based on anecdotal reports and in all likelihood represent a serious undercount,” she added.

ICE didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story.

And advocates don’t think the agency will scale back any of its enforcement operations. Under new enforcement guidelines issued by Homeland Security Sec. John Kelly, immigrants charged with crimes are deportation targets. That means showing up at court to try to get those charges dismissed could mean risking deportation—which is why groups like Germán’s are having trouble getting their clients to come to court.

“It’s only going to get worse,” he said.