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Immigration Officers Target Human Trafficking Victims in Latest Raid

Ted Eytan/Flickr

On Friday afternoon, New York’s top judge and public defenders were taken by surprise when federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents were spotted at a Queens criminal court for human trafficking victims.

Lawyers from the organization Legal Aid Society approached one of the ICE agents, who confirmed the agents had warrants for several people in the building, according to a WNYC reporter on the scene.

Later, lawyers would learn from the judge that ICE had planned on detaining a young Chinese woman in the Human Trafficking Intervention Courtroom.

The victim had been charged with working illegally as a masseuse, lawyers told WNYC. After completing a program with a community group, she was on the verge of receiving a dismissal of the charge when the agents appeared.

Read More: ICE Agents Can’t Enter NYC Public Schools in New ‘Sanctuary’ Edict

The victim’s lawyers asked the judge for bail, which gave her enough time to leave the building.

Other undocumented immigrants, however, weren’t as lucky.

Three individuals outside of the Queens courthouse were arrested, said a spokeswoman for ICE, Rachael Yong Yow.

ICE did not respond or offer a comment to Global Citizen’s repeated requests.

City Council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said in a statement after the incident that she believes ICE has sunk to “new lows of moral depravity” by targeting a human trafficking victim in court.  

"Contrary to their repeated claims that they pursue only those who are a threat to public safety, ICE agents are now targeting survivors of human trafficking, some of the most vulnerable New Yorkers,” she said in the statement. “Stationing ICE agents inside New York’s courthouses is a shameful, predatory tactic that will make our City less safe and devastate the trust we have worked so hard to build in the immigrant community.”

In 2016 alone, there were 327 human trafficking cases reported in New York, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. The number has more than doubled since 2012.

Read More: Mexico Is Offering Legal Aid to Immigrants Detained in the US

Often, trafficked victims brought to the US are undocumented and recruited with the false premise of marriage or a legitimate job, according to the Polaris Project, a nonprofit that combats modern slavery.

Vulnerable and exploited, these individuals approach organizations like the Legal Aid Society, which provide support and legal services to the city’s most vulnerable people, including victims of trafficking.

"The Trump administration's promise to cast a very large net to capture the people that are most vulnerable is happening," Tina Luongo, the attorney in charge of the criminal practice for the Legal Aid Society, stated.

Since February, 20 people have been arrested by ICE agents in New York City courthouses, a spokesman for the Office of Court Administration told WNYC.  

ICE typically does not make arrests in certain “sensitive” locations, like schools, healthcare facilities, places of worship, rallies or parades. It argues, however, that courthouses do not qualify as “sensitive.”

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“Because courthouse visitors are typically screened upon entry to search for weapons and other contraband, the safety risks for the arresting officers, the arrestee, and members of the community are substantially diminished,” ICE stated on its website.

Others involved in the criminal justice system think otherwise.

“We have not seen courts being used as a focal point for enforcement in a number of years because courts should be considered safe spaces,” Muzaffar Chishti, Director of the Migration Policy Institute at New York University, told Global Citizen. “You want both victims and witnesses to feel comfortable to go to the criminal justice system.”

Increasingly, reports from local law enforcement departments nationwide have shown that reported incidents of sexual assault have gone down. This is not because the rates themselves are plummeting, but because immigrants are afraid of facing the risk of deportation, according to the reports.

In March, for example, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Berk told the Los Angeles Times that his department experienced a 25% drop in reports of sexual assault among Latino victims, who have withdrawn requests to seek restraining orders against against alleged abusers. In Houston, that number dropped by nearly 43%.

The New York City Council speaker urged Chief Judge Janet DiFiore and Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks to take a stand against the presence of ICE agents in courthouses, and DiFiore released a statement saying she had met with federal officials — including Homeland Security — to request that courthouses be treated as “sensitive” areas.

"We are committed to the safety and security of all New Yorkers who use our courthouses throughout the state," Difiore said in the statement.

Chishti said that both this and the judge’s warning in the Queens criminal courthouse are unprecedented.

Read More: An ‘Underground Railroad’ in New York Is Helping Refugees Flee the US

“Judges are so outraged by the practices of ICE that they now feel it is part of their responsibility to alert lawyers for defendants about possible ICE actions,” he said. “They think that they no longer can stay as neutral observers in a phenomenon where they see immigration enforcement creating difficulties for administrational criminal justice.”

This April, the chief justice of New Jersey’s highest court, Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, wrote a letter to the Department of Homeland Security, calling on federal immigration officials to stop arresting unauthorized immigrants at state courthouses.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie called the letter “inappropriate.”

“As we confront the realities of increased ICE enforcement and the uncertainty that brings,” City Council Speaker Mark-Viverito said, “we must hold true to our values and continue to affirm that New York is and always will be a sanctuary city.”