Last week, a Brooklyn court building became the latest flashpoint in Trump’s border war: Genaro Rojas-Hernandez, an undocumented immigrant, was at a criminal court for an unrelated assault charge, when he was arrested by ICE agents. The clash between federal immigration agents and a local criminal-justice process spoke to a new constitutional crisis unfolding in the city’s criminal-justice system.
New York’s immigrants don’t take the justice system lightly; whether they’re the accuser or the accused, municipal courtrooms are daunting and confusing. But under Trump, they’re especially dangerous. Since January, according to federal data, the New York City area’s courts have seen a striking 900 percent spike in the number of immigrants targeted by ICE immigration agents, seeking to take them into federal, not local-police, custody. Legal activists warn that Trump is attacking not only the rights of migrant communities but the central organ of constitutional justice.
These immigrants come from all walks of life. They’re women seeking temporary protective orders, trafficking survivors, struggling parents dealing with family-court disputes. Municipal courts don’t deal with federal immigration law, but, by raiding local courts, ICE becomes judge, jury, and jailer for migrants dealing with anything from a traffic ticket to domestic violence.
The Immigrant Defense Project (IDP) has documented 112 ICE arrests and near-arrests in the New York area that have occurred since the start of the year, mostly in the five boroughs but also in outlying and suburban regions. Since both undocumented and authorized migrants can also be placed in deportation proceedings, IDP found that about 15 of those arrested were “legal”—primarily of green-card or visa holders.
Following the Trump administration’s rollback of the Obama administration’s prioritization framework for immigration-law enforcement, which focused on criminal activity, ICE has drastically expanded the range of immigrants it can actively pursue to include those without criminal records. In New York City courts, according to IDP, at least one in five of the immigrants targeted had no criminal record. Some were dealing with merely a first-time arrest due to a traffic violation. ICE effectively criminalized some who would otherwise go free—arresting them after the court dismissed their charges. Local officials have complained of ICE agents’ invading municipal courts to “catch” residents contesting nuisance charges like public drunkenness.
The grim pattern of arbitrary arrest is echoed across the country as raids target workers, families- and students in workplaces and immigrant neighborhoods. Overall ICE arrests have soared by more than 40 percent between January and September compared to the previous year.