City Bar’s Immigration Committee Testifies Before City Council – by Rebecca Sosa

Last week, the City Bar’s Immigration & Nationality Law Committee provided oral and written testimony at a New York City Council Immigration Committee oversight hearing on the Impact of New Immigration Enforcement Tactics on Access to Justice and Services. Across the board, the testimony was loud and clear: New Yorkers are being deterred from accessing a wide range of public City services like courts, schools, police protection, and public benefits, because they are afraid it will put them in contact with ICE (Immigration & Customs Enforcement).

This fear is tangible and based on a new reality: immigration attorneys testified about how ICE is showing up to NYC courts, particularly criminal courts, to arrest and detain people in and around the courthouse. ICE is emboldened by anti-immigrant rhetoric coming from the White House and the breadth of the President’s sweeping January 2017 Executive Orders, making essentially everyone without lawful immigration status and with any contact with the criminal justice system a priority for detention and deportation. Under the President’s January 2017 Executive Orders, the enforcement priorities go far beyond those actually convicted of a criminal offense to include those who have just been “charged with any criminal offense, where such charge has not been resolved,” those who “have committed acts that constitute a chargeable criminal offense,” and those who, “in the judgment of an immigration officer, otherwise pose a risk to public safety or national security.” Those words are enough to give any attorney pause to consider how this impacts our existing laws regarding our due process rights. Yes, this means that ICE can arrest, detain, and try to deport a non-U.S. citizen who has not been found guilty of anything, by any court, merely based on a “charge” – or even no charge at all, based on nothing more than one ICE officer’s determination that the person poses a “risk to public safety.”

As a result, immigrant advocates testified how our immigrant communities no longer feel safe accessing city services. Peter Markowitz, director of the immigration clinic at the Cardozo School of Law, testified: “I have heard from New Yorkers who are afraid to leave their houses or take the subway. New Yorkers who have abandoned city services and missed court appearances because they fear ICE will be waiting for them,” he said. “I heard from a local soup kitchen recently that a long line of immigrants waiting for food fled when a NYPD Community Affairs officer began speaking to people on the line. He was there to help, but with immigration agents routinely and deceptively identifying themselves as police officers, New Yorkers don’t know who they can trust.”

That’s why the City Bar’s Immigration and Nationality Law Committee testified in support of NYC Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito’s proposals outlined in her 2017 State of the City Address, designed to protect immigrant New Yorkers. The overall theme is that legislation, policies, and clear guidelines are crucially needed to preserve the public’s access to courts and city services by limiting City cooperation with federal immigration officials in apprehending individuals who pose no threat to public safety.  The challenge is determining how all of the federal and state constitutions and laws interact, and how to strike the appropriate balance between upholding the public’s rights, safety, and access to services within the legal limits of local authority. 

The Committee testified in support of legislation to prohibit local law enforcement from acting as federal immigration officers, as well as limitations on ICE’s access to City properties such as courts and schools for federal immigration enforcement purposes. We supported common-sense criminal justice reform, including alternative tools to address low-level and non-violent offenses. This is an essential step when considered in the federal immigration enforcement context, where any contact with the criminal justice system – no matter how long ago, or how minor – makes that individual a priority for deportation. We testified in support of establishing data privacy standards and protocols to keep personal information such as immigration status confidential. This is especially important in the context of schools. The Committee testified in support of the Department of Education refusal to provide ICE access to school property without a judicial warrant, which is a necessary measure to protect all children’s rights to access a public education without putting their parents at any additional risk for sending their children to school.  Finally, we spoke in favor of expanded funding for immigration representation, bolstered by expanded Know Your Rights educational materials and presentations.

I left City Hall with renewed appreciation for the work the New York City Council members are doing to support our city of immigrants, including funding immigrant representation. I also came away with a much deeper understanding of the scope of the problems we are facing as a city, and as a country. When advocates describe our communities’ “fear” of accessing city services – fear of even leaving the house – they’re also talking about something that no one really said out loud, but was omnipresent. This is also about our communities feeling shame, anxiety, and depression, and even questioning our own value and sense of belonging, because of immigrant roots and identity. “No soy criminal” – I am not a criminal, proclaimed an undocumented construction worker in Staten Island, who bravely testified at the hearing.

As Carmen Maria Rey of Sanctuary for Families pointed out in her testimony, many of the immigration advocates in the room testifying are immigrants and belong to immigrant families, yet we are not the face of immigration in this country. So my personal take-away is that my advocacy can include sharing more positive examples of the accomplishments and contributions of our immigrant communities and recognizing our shared immigrant heritage. I encourage us all to contribute to this positive counter-narrative about our identity and diversity as among our most treasured assets.

Rebecca Sosa is a member of the City Bar’s Immigration & Nationality Law Committee, and co-chair of its Asylum & Immigration Courts subcommittee