ALBANY — The head of the union for state court officers says New York's administrative judges have created an unenforceable rule aimed at blocking federal immigration agents from arresting undocumented immigrants in courthouses without judicial warrants.
"ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) can do whatever they want to do and we have no control over them," Dennis Quirk, the president of the New York State Court Officers Association told CNHI.
"A courthouse is a public building, and we can't stop them from coming in," Quirk said.
Quirk was reacting to last week's announcement by the state Office of Court Administration that declared federal agents could no longer make arrests of immigrants in state courthouses unless they first obtained a judicial warrant. Advocates for immigrants and legal aid groups have been complaining in recent months that ICE agents have been monitoring courthouses across the state in an effort to apprehend immigrants who are in the country illegally, but in some cases were in courthouses because they were crime victims or cooperating witnesses.
Quirk said state court authorities issued the directive to "appease all these progressives." But one day after the directive was announced, an agency executive, in a Skype call to supervisors for the court officers, acknowledged the new policy was merely "a wish list," Quirk added.
A spokesman for he agency that runs state courts, Lucian Chalfen, acknowledged that the court system has no immediate mechanism for preventing ICE from arresting people inside courthouses without judicial warrants, other than reporting it after the fact to federal officials.
"That's a good question," Chalfen said when asked how his agency planned to counter such arrests. "We have no intention whatsoever of putting our people in the middle. That's not going to happen. We certainly would not have our officers interfere in any way."
Should the ICE agents persist in arresting people while using an administrative warrant, rather than a judicial warrant as the new state policy requires, Chalfen said, "We would take it up with people in Washington."
Advocates for immigrants were quick to applaud the state's new rule, suggesting a wave of arrests at courthouses had made immigrants fearful of interacting with the legal system.
"In order for our judicial system to function properly, all immigrants — including our clients who have been accused of a crime, parents appearing in family court, and survivors of abuse, among others — must have unimpeded access to courts," said Janet Sabel of The Legal Aid Society. The ICE arrests in New York have become "pervasive and rampant," she said.
The new rule aimed at shielding undocumented immigrants doesn't go far enough, said Sen. Brad Hoylman, D-Manhattan. He has authored legislation that would provide them with the right to sue ICE if they are arrested on courthouse sidewalks or parking lots..
"Courthouses are sanctuaries of justice, and you shouldn't fear deportation if you're trying to have your matter resolved at a state courthouse," Hoylman said.
ICE did not respond to requests for comment Monday, though the agency has opposed state efforts to restrict its agents from enforcing immigration laws at courthouses, contending public safety is jeopardized when "criminal aliens" escape accountability and avoid detection.
Scores of state and federal judges urged federal officials last December to have ICE adopt a new posture and consider courts "sensitive locations," a category that includes houses of worship and schools for enforcement actions.
Quirk questioned whether critics of ICE will find a way to restrict the immigration agents in courthouses.
"They can pass any bill they want, but nobody is going to federal court to stop it because they know they would lose and they would be embarrassed," Quirk said.
The union leader also suggested immigration advocates may be exposing undocumented immigrants to being taken into custody by ICE by suggesting they can now enter courthouses without worrying agents may be looking for them there.
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach him at email@example.com.