More than two years after Donald Trump’s inauguration ushered in sweeping changes to the nation’s immigration enforcement system, accounts of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arresting undocumented immigrants in and around New York courts have increased by 1,700 percent, according to a new report.
The expanded courthouse operations have been coupled with increased reports of New York-based immigration agents using physical force to take undocumented immigrants into custody, the Immigrant Defense Project said Monday.
“ICE operations increased not only in absolute number but grew in brutality and geographic scope” from 2017 to 2018, the IDP report found, with plainclothes agents in New York relying on “intrusive surveillance and violent force to execute arrests.”
Included in the new report are accounts of New York-based agents grabbing people off the street as they attempt to go to or leave court, shuffling them into unmarked cars, and refusing to identify themselves as bewildered family members look on.
“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,” Alisa Wellek, IDP’s executive director, said in a statement. “We cannot allow ICE to turn New York’s courts into traps for immigrants.”
ICE did not respond to a request for comment Monday.
Relying on a network of attorneys, legal organizations, and a publicly accessible hotline, IDP has tracked ICE enforcement tactics for years. According to the organization, Trump’s ascent to the White House was followed by a surge in courthouse arrests unlike anything advocates in New York had ever seen, with the total number of arrests reported in 2017 and 2018 numbering 374, compared to 11 in 2016.
IDP has also tracked ICE tactics outside courts and in New York communities, releasing an interactive map in 2018 documenting the agency’s increased use of predawn raids and ruses — often involving ICE agents pretending to be New York City police officers — in order to arrest undocumented immigrants.
Last year not only saw an increase in reported courthouse arrests in New York City, IDP’s latest report found. The organization also documented courthouse arrests in new locations, including several upstate New York counties, and what the advocacy group described as the targeting of “particularly vulnerable immigrants including survivors of human trafficking, survivors of domestic violence, and youth” at court.
“In the vast majority of operations, ICE agents refused to identify themselves, explain why an individual is being arrested, or offer proof that they have reason to believe that the individual they’re arresting is deportable,” the report said. “This occurred despite the fact that internal agency regulations require them to provide this information.”
The increase in courthouse arrests in New York followed the issuance of a new directive on such operations, signed by former ICE Acting Director Thomas Homan, who once told lawmakers that undocumented people should live in fear of his agency.
Echoing the administration’s anti-“sanctuary city” rhetoric, the January 10 directive argued that “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.”
The directive went on to say that family members and friends encountered during a courthouse arrest “will not be subject to civil immigration enforcement action, absent special circumstances,” and “ICE officers and agents should generally avoid enforcement actions in courthouses, or areas within courthouses that are dedicated to non-criminal (e.g., family court, small claims court) proceedings.”
According to the IDP report, ICE has not only expanded courthouse arrests since the directive was issued — its New York agents have also arrested family members present during operations and carried out arrests in noncriminal courts.
In November, The Intercept published video, originally obtained by IDP, of ICE agents and New York state court officers arresting an undocumented man outside the Queens County Criminal Court. Included in Monday’s report, the man’s arrest is part of a broader pattern described by IDP as “one of the most striking changes in ICE operations” in 2018.
“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 said. “They have also pulled guns on individuals leaving court. In one incident, ICE officers physically assaulted an attorney who was 8 months pregnant.”
In one case documented in the report, a mother and son were leaving Brooklyn’s criminal court when two men in plainclothes grabbed the son and began dragging him toward an unmarked car. Fearing that she was witnessing her son’s kidnapping, the woman asked the men who they were but received no answer. A third officer, according to the report, showed up and shoved the woman against the wall, repeatedly telling her to “shut up.”
“The officers then drove away, leaving his mother sobbing on the street, panicked that her son had been kidnapped,” the report said. “She did not know it was ICE agents who arrested him until she received a call from her son in an ICE processing facility later that day.”
A second incident documented in the report also invoked the sense of kidnapping in progress.
“A man was leaving the Brooklyn Supreme Court with his attorney and family when he was suddenly surrounded by plainclothes ICE agents,” the report said. After throwing him against a wall and refusing to identify themselves to his attorney, the agents bundled the young man into an unmarked car with no license plates.
According to the report, “several bystanders witnessed the commotion and one woman, believing that the man was being kidnapped, called 911.”
The IDP is now pushing for legislation — the Protect Our Courts Act — to put an end to ICE’s use of courthouse arrests in New York. According to Wellek, the IDP executive director, “The New York state legislature must act now to pass the Protect Our Courts Act to prevent ICE from continuing these harmful practices.”