Arrests of undocumented immigrants at courthouses in New York state by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement have become so sudden and aggressive that bystanders think they have just witnessed a kidnapping, according to a new report issued Monday.
In “The Courthouse Trap: How ICE Operations Impacted New York’s Courts in 2018,” released by the Immigrant Defense Project on Monday, the nonprofit group outlines changes in the enforcement arm of the U.S. immigration system that have resulted in 1700 percent increase since President Donald Trump took office.
The allegations in the report, collected from lawyers, legal aid groups, and the Immigrant Defense Project’s hotline, include dragging suspected undocumented immigrants from cars, slamming their family members against walls, and trailing immigration attorneys in order to arrest their clients. In 2016, that network reported 11 arrests at courts across the state; that number had increased to more than 200 in 2018.
“This report shows that ICE is expanding surveillance and arrests in courthouses across the state, creating a crisis for immigrants who need access to the courts,” said Alisa Wellek, executive director of the Immigrant Defense Project. “We cannot allow ICE to turn New York’s courts into traps for immigrants.”
The arrests at courthouses across the state—part of a record increase in ICE detentions so severe that even immigrants with legal residency fear being caught up in ICE operations—have targeted survivors of human trafficking, domestic violence, and other crimes, and even extended to family courts, despite a January 2018 pledge to avoid “enforcement actions at sensitive locations,” including non-criminal courts.
“Officers and agents will generally avoid enforcement actions in courthouses, or areas within courthouses, that are dedicated to non-criminal (e.g., family court, small claims court) proceedings,” ICE tells readers in a page dedicated to answering questions about courthouse arrests.
Matthew Bourke, an ICE spokesperson, told The Daily Beast that the agency doesn’t statistically track arrests made at courthouses.
“Unfortunately, we can’t speak to the data you’ve referenced,” said Bourke.
The report also alleges that plainclothes ICE officers targeted people appearing at rehabilitative community justice courts and parole reentry programs, where officers have reportedly arrested undocumented immigrants without identifying themselves or providing administrative warrants proving that they have reason to believe someone is subject to deportation.
“ICE officers and agents do not have dedicated uniforms, so all would be in ‘plainclothes’—sometimes—with ICE identifiers depending on the planned enforcement action,” Bourke told The Daily Beast. “Depending on the circumstances surrounding an enforcement action, an administrative warrant may not be provided until after the formal arrest has occurred.”
Officers should identify themselves as law-enforcement officials during an arrest, Bourke added.
As a result of ICE officers refusing to identity themselves, some of the arrests were mistaken for kidnappings by bystanders. After one man leaving the Brooklyn Supreme Court with his attorney was pulled into an unmarked car by plainclothes ICE agents, the report details, a woman called 911 believing that the man had been kidnapped.
“Over the past year, IDP has received reports of ICE agents tackling individuals to the ground, slamming family members against walls, and dragging individuals from cars in front of their children,” the report states. “They have also pulled guns on individuals leaving court. In one incident, ICE officers physically assaulted an attorney who was 8 months pregnant.”
Law enforcement officials have indicated that the massive increase in courthouse arrests has begun negatively affecting public safety. In a report issued by the American Civil Liberties Union last year, one in five police officers said that immigrants are now less likely to help in investigations, file police reports, or work with prosecutors for fear of being arrested by ICE. As a result, 69 percent of officers said that domestic violence cases had become harder to investigate; 64 percent said the same of human trafficking cases, and the same percentage reported a negative effect on officer safety.
In December 2018, dozens of former judges signed a letter asking ICE to officially add courthouses to the list of sensitive locations—alongside schools, places of worship, and funerals—where it will generally not conduct operations.
“Judges simply cannot do their jobs—and our justice system cannot function effectively—if victims, defendants, witnesses, and family members do not feel secure in accessing the courthouse,” the judges wrote to acting ICE director Ronald Vitiello. “We understand that ICE favors courthouse arrests because it considers courts to be safe environments where officers are confident they can operate without danger. But it is exactly that sense of safety that we as judges tried to foster for anyone seeking access to justice, and that we believe ICE’s courthouse activities put at risk.”