Get ICE out of the courthouse

December 13, 2017

Brian Sullivan reports on protests by defense attorneys in New York City against the Trump administration's targeting of their immigrant clients who show up in court.

ON NOVEMBER 28, Genaro Rojas Hernandez showed up to a Brooklyn courtroom to defend himself in a criminal case. Charged with violating a restraining order, Hernandez was conferring with his attorney when he was suddenly snatched by two ICE agents.

One of the agents had been sitting in the courthouse hallway in plain clothes, waiting for a moment to pounce. The second burst out from behind a pair of closed doors as Hernandez passed by. The ICE agents were assisted by court personnel as they grabbed Hernandez and forced him into a restricted area of the building.

As the harrowing situation unfolded, Hernandez's attorney, a unionized public defender at the Legal Aid Society, tried to advise her client, but she was forcibly prevented from doing so.

As word of ICE's brazen arrest spread through the courthouse, public defenders began contemplating a job action in response. After an excited discussion, approximately 200 public defenders decided to walk off the job in protest, and a spontaneous picket line quickly formed outside the courthouse.

Public defenders and immigrant rights activists protest ICE at Brooklyn Borough Hall
Public defenders and immigrant rights activists protest ICE at Brooklyn Borough Hall (Association of Legal Aid Attorneys - UAW 2325 | Facebook)

Waving flags and signs emblazoned with the logo of their union, UAW Local 2325, the picketers demanded that the Office of Court Administration--the state agency that runs the courts--stop cooperating with ICE and keep them out of the courts.

Unfortunately, it was too late to stop ICE from taking Hernandez into custody. He was allowed to briefly speak with his attorney, though only in the presence of the ICE agents who had just physically detained him, and then he was taken away to await deportation.

But with the walkout, Local 2325, together with some nonunion public defenders, took a strong stand against ICE that could become the first step in a much larger fightback.

HERNANDEZ'S CASE isn't unique. The Immigrant Defense Project reports that in 2017, almost 80 people have been detained by ICE in or immediately outside of courthouses in New York City.

The American court system is deeply flawed, but it is the place people go to exercise basic democratic rights. People go to court to defend themselves from criminal charges, sue their bosses for unpaid wages or sue their landlords for repairs. In the case of criminal courts, defendants have to appear in court or face even worse punishment at the hands of the criminal injustice system.

ICE doesn't want immigrants to do any of these things, preferring that they be forced to live in the shadows. The agency is targeting courthouses in order to restrict immigrants' access to basic human rights.

Local 2325's spontaneous response to the arrest of Hernandez has shined a much-needed light on ICE's operation in the court system. Building off that momentum, the union then organized a larger action on December 7 to demand that ICE stop targeting immigrants in court.

This larger rally was endorsed by dozens of unions, community organizations and left groups. Despite the chilly weather, the event drew out several hundred people and considerable press attention.

Several speakers addressed the crowd between chants of "What do we want? ICE Out! If we don't get it, shut it down!" and "ICE free NYC!"

The speakers included leaders of student organizations, public defenders, union leaders and elected officials like New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. Each of the speakers emphasized how important it is that all New Yorkers, regardless of immigration status, be allowed to access the court system.

Local 2325 member Jane-Roberte Sampeur attacked ICE for forcing criminal defendants to make an impossible choice: Either let the criminal justice system trample their rights, or show up in court and be ripped from their families and deported.

Two speakers from the Muslim American Society connected the targeting of undocumented immigrants in court to the NYPD's systematic surveillance of the Muslim community, pointing out that the weakening of democratic rights for some inevitably leads to similar results for others.

While many speakers inveighed against Republican leaders like Trump and Jeff Sessions, some Democrats also came under fire. Several people called on Mayor Bill de Blasio's administration to make good on its promise to make New York City a sanctuary city by doing its part to keep ICE out of the courts.

THE DECEMBER 7 action was an important step forward in the fight against ICE and the mass deportation of undocumented immigrants.

ICE is a powerful enemy with the full support of the Trump Administration. Backing them down is going to take solidarity from the kind of broad coalition of forces on display at the rally. The dozens of supporting organizations and hundreds of attendees represented a spectrum of political forces.

It's significant that these forces came together to speak out against the detention of a man accused of a serious crime. Activists often face immense pressure to defend only "good" immigrants, meaning those without criminal records or other smears against them. Others are considered "bad" immigrants unworthy of basic human rights.

Donald Trump has consistently used this shibboleth to justify racist and hateful policies, and it has proved successful in undermining solidarity with victims of ICE's deportation machine.

Local 2325's activism around Mr. Hernandez's case has demonstrated how successful a campaign that jettisons the "good immigrant/bad immigrant" dichotomy can be. The union organized a massive rally that garnered broad support for the proposition that any immigrant living in the United States should be entitled to basic democratic rights, without qualification.

With such a broad coalition at work, however, there was bound to be some mixed politics and disagreement. This tension was most dramatically illustrated when someone in the crowd directly confronted City Council Speaker Mark-Viverito for her role in the gentrification of East Harlem and the hiring of over 1,000 new NYPD officers in 2015.

While Mark-Viverito addressed the crowd, the activist shouted over her, demanding to know how she could claim to speak on behalf of immigrants while at the same time increasing the number of police officers on the street and working with developers to displace long-term Harlem residents through gentrification.

After the confrontation, many in the audience took up a chant to end "broken windows" policing--the policy of hyper-vigilant over-policing of minor crimes, especially in communities of color.

Subsequent speakers also directly addressed the issue. Amanda Jack from 5 Boro Defenders pointed out that if there were fewer arrests and fewer criminal charges, there would be fewer opportunities for ICE to target people in criminal court.

The brief confrontation with Mark-Viverito illustrated both tensions within the coalition and its potential dynamism. If we are going to build a movement that can successfully challenge Trump's deportation machine, these debates and tensions cannot be ignored or downplayed.

Hernandez is now in ICE custody and is facing deportation, despite the fact that he has a family in New York and has lived in this country for 15 years. There are thousands of people facing similar battles across the U.S.

Like all bullies, ICE is most effective when its work is shrouded in secrecy, shame and intimidation. It mocks, intimidates and dehumanizes immigrants, and uses the criminal justice system to give a shine of respectability to its racist work. If someone is accused of a crime, they are easier to target and scapegoat.

But now Local 2325 is putting a small crack in this strategy. The union's brief political strike and subsequent rally demonstrate the potential for garnering broad support and building solidarity in the face of ICE's bullying.

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