As Cesar Vargas and Ismary Calderón strolled the Richmond County Supreme Court’s perimeter, they could have easily blended in with other pedestrians.
But instead, they wore black vests with neon orange stripes, outfits that guaranteed everyone — including U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement — would notice them.
“Our community is so vulnerable when they’re in the shadows, when there’s no eyes out there. But we want to be those eyes and bring light to any enforcement action,” said Vargas.
He and other advocates lead between 60 and 70 volunteers who are patrolling Staten Island locations where federal officers arrest immigrants. Their aim is to educate the immigrant community about their rights and watch over them, while also monitoring ICE and holding the agency accountable for any lies or illegal activity.
Inspired by Vargas' own military training, volunteers are taking on erratic shifts around the borough that sometimes begin before the sun rises so they can retain the element of surprise and be on the streets when ICE is most likely to strike.
Earlier this month, Vargas and Calderón landed at the Staten Island courthouse for an hour of patrolling, looping around the building’s facade while peeking into car windows. From parking lots to vehicles on the side of the road, ICE officers could be lurking anywhere.
Courthouses where defendants, witnesses and victims congregate for justice may seem like shoo-ins for a “sensitive location” designation, which ICE already applies to schools, places of worship and health care facilities, and which means enforcement activities are usually averted. But ICE actions have become widespread at courthouses in recent years, leaving immigrants fearful that a routine court appearance may end in detention or deportation.
ICE resumed aggressive practices at courthouses across the United States soon after President Donald Trump’s inauguration. The agency began arresting far more people who had been charged but not convicted of crimes, according to ICE data, denying immigrants their right to due process guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. At the same time, officers started targeting individuals who had not been enforcement priorities under President Barack Obama’s administration, which focused on detaining immigrants with serious criminal records.
In fiscal year 2018, nearly 33,000 administrative arrests made by ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations nationwide were of people with pending criminal charges, compared to less than 6,300 in fiscal year 2016. DUIs were the most common offense that resulted in an arrest, with drug and other traffic offenses trailing closely behind.
ICE’s data don’t indicate where the arrests were made, but it's clear that courthouses have become a convenient enforcement site. In 2018, the Immigrant Defense Project tracked more than 200 ICE arrests or sightings around courts in New York state, according to a 2019 report. That’s up from 11 arrests two years prior, at the end of Obama’s second term.
“Courthouse arrests are one extremely disturbing trend that just exacerbates fear and is an attempt to send a message that they will go to extreme ends," said Jane Shim, an IDP advocacy staff attorney.
ICE activity at the courts occurs often in places where local police have stopped cooperating with ICE detainers, said Randy Capps, director of research for U.S. programs at the Migration Policy Institute. The New York City Police Department, for example, hasn’t complied with ICE detainers since 2014, which means the federal agency can no longer easily pick up targets who are in NYPD custody. In a directive from January 2018, then ICE Acting Director Thomas D. Homan wrote that enforcement at the courts is often "necessitated" by lack of cooperation from jurisdictions that refuse to turn immigrants in jails or prisons over to ICE.
"Federal, state, and local law enforcement officials routinely engage in enforcement activity in courthouses throughout the country because many individuals appearing in courthouses for one matter are wanted for unrelated criminal or civil violations," Homan wrote. "ICE’s enforcement activities in these same courthouses are wholly consistent with longstanding law enforcement practices, nationwide."
In the directive, Homan argued that because most people who enter courthouses are screened for weapons, actions there could reduce safety risks for the public, officers and even the target. He said enforcement at courts would focus on convicted criminals, gang members, safety threats, people who have been ordered removed but haven’t left the country, and immigrants who have re-entered the U.S. illegally.
But IDP found that friends and family members who attend court with a loved one are also at risk of being detained, as are vulnerable immigrants such as survivors of domestic violence or trafficking.
Descriptions of dramatic arrests have established a fact pattern for how ICE conducts its enforcement activities at courthouses, IDP’s 2019 report suggests. Officers in plainclothes with unmarked vehicles often refuse to identify themselves and use force to detain their targets; bystanders occasionally believe they’re witnessing a kidnapping when ICE drags someone away.
As immigrants have learned about the potential perils that await them at court, they have had to weigh whether to risk going, or whether to dodge the court system and face consequences that could potentially be even more severe. In a survey from June 2017, mere months after Trump took office, 29% of 225 advocates and attorneys involved at New York courts reported working with immigrants who failed to make a court appearance because they were afraid of ICE. Among those who helped survivors of violence, more than two-thirds had clients who chose not to seek help through the courts because they feared immigration enforcement.
Jorge, who is in the country illegally and asked not to use his full name, told NBC his partner reported him to the police for an incident that he adamantly denies ever happened. He has three U.S. citizen children and has been stateside for three decades. On the eve of a court appearance in Staten Island, he said he was afraid ICE might grab him.
“I’ve been hearing stories, I’ve seen in the news, cases that have happened,” he said in Spanish. “So I’m afraid that these kinds of problems can happen to me.”
More than two years after advocates began noticing an uptick in courthouse arrests, policymakers and the courts are finally actively pushing back against ICE’s enforcement techniques that are intimidating people and impeding the justice system — but not all of the measures are foolproof.
In New York, the state’s Office of Court Administration adopted new rules in April that restricted ICE officers without a judicial warrant or order from arresting a target inside most courthouses. The Protect Our Courts Act in the state’s legislature goes even further. It codifies those rules, applies them to courts in the state that are currently not covered, and protects immigrants who are on the way to or leaving court, as many arrests take place outside the courthouse itself.
The bill did not become law in 2019, but state Sen. Brad Hoylman, one of its lead sponsors, said he is hopeful that next year he and his peers could get the legislation to the floor and passed in the Senate. He believes ICE enforcement at courthouses represents a “systematic denial of New York residents of their due process.”
“First and foremost, every New Yorker should have a right to attend a court proceeding, regardless of their immigration status, without fear of arrest,” said Hoylman.
“But secondly,” he continued, “we all have a stake in this process. Our state’s justice system depends on victims, witnesses, defendants, family members appearing in court proceedings and delivering testimony.”
New York is not the only state that has taken action against the federal government on this matter. In May, New Jersey tried to limit arrests by requiring ICE officers to show courthouse security personnel warrants, and in June, a judge in Massachusetts temporarily prohibited ICE from arresting immigrants who are going to court for official business.
Meanwhile, advocates such as Vargas are on the streets, informing immigrants of their rights and trying to hold ICE accountable. “It’s a hard time, but there is always mobilization and community in these types of moments,” said Shim.
In Staten Island, where the Statue of Liberty looms large on people's morning commutes, and where Trump won Richmond County by nearly 17%, reactions to the federal government’s divisive rhetoric and hardline immigration policy have been mixed. Some people are buying into what the White House is doing, screaming “Build the Wall” at soccer players and commenting on social media about how to contact ICE, said Vargas. But others are fighting back because they feel the United States is acting contrary to the values it was founded on, said Gonzalo Mercado, executive director of La Colmena Community Job Center, one of the partner organizations on the patrols.
“We’ve never seen our country this way before, and people feel that they have to stand up. Because right now it’s immigrant communities, you know, but we know how that goes,” Mercado said.
On that warm August day at the Richmond County courthouse, Vargas and Calderón bantered as they walked. Past a sign that read “HIS NAME WAS ERIC GARNER,” commemorating the life of a black man who died in Staten Island at the hands of the police. Past a man who asked them what they were doing, and who seemed glad they were doing it. Past car, after car, after car, any one of them a threat — especially those that blended in.
The minutes passed, and they didn’t spot any ICE officers. All was quiet, just as Vargas had hoped.
“That’s always a good thing,” he had said earlier. “I’d rather have a boring patrol than a patrol where I actually have to, we have to, see ICE.”