Courthouses need to be an ICE-free zone

Lea Ramirez reports from New York City as immigrant rights supporters and legal workers continue their campaign to defend undocumented clients from ICE.

Attorneys and legal workers rally to get ICE out of New York City's courthouses (Working Families Party | flickr)Attorneys and legal workers rally to get ICE out of New York City's courthouses (Working Families Party | flickr)

SOME 200 attorneys, legal workers and community allies held a rally at New York City's Foley Square on March 15 to demand that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) stay out of the courthouse--so that due process for New York's immigrant communities can remain in it.

In January, ICE made official what immigrant rights advocates have learned over the past year--the agency has changed its policy and is sending agents to federal, state and local courthouses to arrest people without legal status.

The policy will obviously have a chilling effect on immigrants believing that they can participate in the legal system--even women seeking protection from domestic abuse or women and men who have been exploited by employers or victims of crimes--without the fear that they could be abducted and put into the process of deportation.

ICE is also using its courtroom operations to target cities that have sanctuary laws that commit local law enforcement to an official policy of non-cooperation with immigration enforcement.

In February, Aboubacar Dembele became another victim of ICE's new policy.

A client of the Legal Aid Society, Dembele was detained by ICE during a regular court appearance in the Bronx. He is the sole provider of his four children, had no prior criminal record and had a green card application pending through his wife who is a U.S. citizen.

Clearly, Dembele wouldn't be considered a priority for deportation if the Trump administration's real purpose wasn't to instill fear in immigrant communities.

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THE NEW York City rally follows on several protests late last year against ICE using New York City courtrooms for its deportation machine.

The first demonstration was a spontaneous walkout by public defenders in Brooklyn after one immigrant man was snatched by ICE agents after he showed up to the court building to defend himself in a criminal case.

The Association of Legal Aid Attorneys (ALAA), a part of UAW Local 2325, organized a larger action a week later that brought out dozens of unions, community organizations and left groups.

For the rally this month, the ALAA worked together with 1199SEIU (the union representing legal workers for the Legal Aid Society), Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights, Faith in New York, NYC Democratic Socialists, New York Legal Assistance Group, Make the Road NY, Arab American Association of New York, Rise and Resist, National Lawyers Guild NYC, and LatinoJustice PRLDEF.

At the rally, Jill Waldman, an immigration attorney at the Legal Aid Society, talked about the impact of the U.S. Supreme Court decision last month in Jennings v. Rodriguez that immigrant detainees can be held indefinitely, without access to periodic bond hearings. Waldman told the crowd:

We have been speaking out against ICE's predatory practices for the past year. But now the stakes have never been higher. This means when our clients are disappeared from the courts, they can be held for months or years in ICE custody without possibility of bond. They will be faced with the horrible choice of staying in jail for years or facing exile from the family and lives they have built in this country.

Other speakers talked about the need for solidarity and mobilization by working-class people. Athena Bernkopf, a paralegal and 1199SEIU member, said that immigrant communities need attention to their real needs for affordable housing, living-wage jobs, access to food and health care, not more raids:

We must call on each other, knowing that we are our greatest asset. Those here today and those who couldn't make it must do more to call out violence against our clients, our families and coworkers...

We must call on our own institutions. We must call them out for speaking empty words and doing nothing to protect their own constituents. We must rise when our most vulnerable community members call on us to defend them.

The rally also focused on New York City's status as a sanctuary city. Bernkopt called on Mayor Bill de Blasio, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York state Chief Judge Janet Difiore to "implement policies that put this commitment to practice and not only words."

The rally ended with a march to the Office of Court Administration headquarters.

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MEAGAN HU, a public defender who came to the rally in the hopes of adding to the pressure on Chief Judge DiFiore, said she was encouraged by the activism.

"A client of mine was arrested earlier," Hu said. "ICE is clearly terrorizing my clients who are immigrants. This rally is really cathartic, and I hope that things are going to start to change."

Others at the demonstration were thinking about the importance of organized labor's role in defending immigrants from ICE.

At the Legal Aid Society, union members in both ALAA and 1999 who have some protections under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) or Temporary Protected Status (TPS) programs are seeking contract language that would defend them if the Trump administration succeeds in killing these programs.

At a national meeting earlier this year, the National Organization of Legal Services Workers/UAW Local 2320 passed a resolution in support DACA, TPS and a "clean" vote in Congress on the DREAM Act.