Immigrants Feel Under Siege and the City Council Wants to Help

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Cesar Vargas is a Staten Island immigration attorney and a DACA recipient.

Donald Trump has only been in power for two months, but immigration advocates told the City Council Immigration Committee Wednesday that his policies are already having a negative impact.

A Staten Island resident recalled how her unauthorized husband was arrested in front of her and their daughter by immigration agents, after showing up for an unrelated court hearing in February. She said he's been in detention ever since. The woman did not want to give her name.

It's still too soon to know if President Trump will really deport more people than President Obama. But his encouragment of immigration agents to detain people accused of crimes has been accompanied by a recent spike in arrests, nationally and locally. During more than four hours of testimony, immigration attorneys and advocates described a growing sense of fear throughout the city. 

“In Staten Island in particular, we have seen the number one question is what would happen to my children if I get deported?” said Cesar Vargas, an attorney who is also a recipient of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals).

Several public defenders described how clients are afraid to go to court hearings. They said Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents are arriving in the city’s criminal courts in plainclothes, and speak to court officers about who’s on the docket.

“ICE officers would often kind of follow the person out,” explained Andrea Saenz, supervising attorney of Brooklyn Defenders’ immigration practice. “They would sometimes make the arrest literally like just outside the courthouse or on the block, or else in the public hallways of the courthouses.”

However, the attorneys said this also happened during former President Barack Obama’s administration, when more than 2.5 million people were deported.

John Skinner, president of the Ironworkers Local 46, told council members he has heard about ICE “just coming on the job site, arresting workers on the job."

"We don’t live in a military dictatorship,” Skinner said. 

Lauren Quijano, a community organizer with New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, said she knew people’s everyday lives have changed.

“One of our clients asked whether it would be safe for him to continue going to his dialysis appointments which he had been going to for five years,” she recalled. “He asked us will ICE just pick me up at dialysis? Can I still go?”

She said she told him agents are supposed to stay away from hospitals but he was still nervous.

Councilmember Carlos Menchaca, who chairs the immigration committee, repeatedly asked those who would come to testify what could be done to strengthen New York’s “sanctuary city” protections for immigrants.

Some suggestions included asking schools to collect more emergency contact numbers from parents, in case they're ever detained, and making it clear that ICE cannot go inside of school buildings. The Department of Education is planning to release more guidance on this topic.

A few attorneys suggested asking the police to stop questioning people about where they were born, during arrests, but the NYPD told WNYC it’s required to do so under federal law and international treaties in order to contact embassies and consulates.

Council speaker Melissa Mark Viverito said she is exploring whether it's possible to keep immigration agents out of courthouses. The city has done this to some extent with its jails, but courts are run by the state. Nonetheless, Viverito said everything's being considered.

“We cannot live in a city in which residents fear contact with law enforcement or the simple moments of life that we take for granted,” she said.