Last week, when Genaro Rojas Hernandez, an immigrant from Mexico, decided to comply with his legal duty to go to court and respond to the criminal charges filed against him, he was ill served. ICE officers snatched him in the hallways of a Brooklyn court and subjected him to deportation.
As an immigration attorney at The Bronx Defenders, a public defender office in the Bronx, I have been representing people in deportation proceedings for the past seven years. I am also a New Yorker and I am part of the more than three million immigrants who call this city our home.
I am furious as I write this because the maneuvers of President Trump, his deportation cronies, and his draconian immigration policies are threatening my community’s access to justice. What happened last week in Brooklyn is happening everywhere in New York. In the Bronx where I work, we are no strangers to this horrible crisis. Mothers are afraid of fighting for the custody of their children, workers are afraid to stand up to their employers in court, and my clients are not able to exercise their constitutional right to defend themselves in court.
The statistics are chilling. According to the Immigrant Defense Project, there has been an increase of nine hundred percent in arrests from ICE in court since last year. ICE agents lurk in the hallways of justice, seize immigrants away from their family, friends and community, and deprive them of their right to have their day in court.
As an immigration lawyer, I represent people daily who are seeking asylum in the United States because they were victims of crimes who could not seek protection from their governments. That was the very reason why I fled my native Ecuador a decade ago and sought refuge in this great country. After being a victim of a hate crime, Ecuadorian law enforcement agencies were unwilling to provide me with protection from my aggressors. How is it that my new home can no longer guarantee access to justice to people like me? Since when does the place where one is born now determines whether one can see a judge in America?
But make no mistake. This is not a problem that affects only immigrants. This is a crisis for everyone who lives in New York. When people don’t feel safe accessing the judicial system, we all lose. Slumlords expand their reign of abuse against tenants, parents are unable to reunite with their children, and the accused are unable to defend themselves in court.
And a domino effect compounds the problem: people stop trusting law enforcement agencies, fewer crimes are reported, our courts are unable to adjudicate cases, the rule of law becomes blurry, and impunity reigns. This is no doubt a crisis for the public safety of all New Yorkers.
ICE needs to be stopped and it needs to be stopped today. We cannot expect ICE to change its policies any time soon. The Trump Administration has little respect for our Constitution and due process rights provided by our laws. So it is in the hands of our leaders in New York to stop the erosion of trust in the court system and the undermining of equal access to justice. It is imperative that Chief Judge Janet DiFiore takes all the necessary steps to stop federal immigration agents from using our courts system to trap immigrants. Without her intervention, this crisis will worsen, endangering all New Yorkers and the integrity of our court system.