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Legal Aid lawyers walk out after another ICE arrest

By Michela Martinazzi |
December 4, 2017
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 Lawyers protest courthouse ICE arrest.
Lawyers protest courthouse ICE arrest. (Photo: UAW Local 2325)

New York, NY - On Nov. 28 in Brooklyn, at around noon, lawyers staged a massive walkout when the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) grabbed a defendant from the hallway midway through a court hearing.

100 attorneys from UAW Local 2325 (Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, employed by the Legal Aid Society) and 50 lawyers from the Brooklyn Defender Services, who are non-union, walked out of the Brooklyn Criminal Court when a Legal Aid client, Genaro Rojas Hernandez, was detained by ICE.

The judge refused to set bail, which would have allowed the client to return to Rikers Island and kept out of ICE custody. The district attorneys, seemingly working with ICE, refused to take a position on the bail, which is out of character, as they normally jump on the chance to lock Black and brown people up for minor crimes.

The defense attorneys walked out and formed a picket line outside the courthouse, and then marched to the DA’s office. Throughout the picket and march the attorneys chanted, “What do we want? ICE out! When do we want it? Now!" and “Sanctuary courts now!”

In response to the attorneys’ protest, the Brooklyn DA put out a statement endorsing the action and supporting the protesting public defenders. However, the union president of the court officers, Dennis Quirk, quickly rebutted with a statement accusing the UAW attorneys of aiding clients in breaking the law by suggesting the attorneys advise clients to escape. Quirk also accused of the attorneys of assaulting court officers while attempting to help their client. In the statement, Quirk warned that if actions of this sort continue, all protesting attorneys and UAW members in attendance would be arrested.

Once they received the favorable statement from the Brooklyn DA, the attorneys returned to work after 2 p.m.

The nature of the wildcat strike was spontaneous but the union attorneys have been feeling anger and frustration towards ICE and how they’ve adeptly found a loophole that allows them to continue arresting immigrants.

While New York City passed a sanctuary city ordinance, it hasn’t stopped the violence and ruthlessness of ICE. Agents have been known to stalk immigrants in state courthouses, rather than local city ones, as they can’t grab them from jails, police custody, schools, etc. Currently, the borough with most ICE arrests from the courthouses has been Brooklyn, where a different client was arrested the previous week. Tensions continue to rise as attorneys feel they can’t properly defend their clients, and as ICE skirts around the Sanctuary City Policy and violently grabs immigrant clients from the courts.

The attorneys who protested last Tuesday are committed to keep protesting and fighting until they’re able to carry out their task of defending their working-class and immigrant clients in a system that was set up against them. Technically, this strike was a violation of a labor law, as the UAW attorneys are under contract and work stoppage is considered illegal. However, these were the same lawyers who a few years ago walked out in protest of the murder of Eric Garner.

Jane-Roberte Sampeur, from Attorneys of Color at Legal Aid, spoke about why it’s vital for lawyers to get involved with the fight for immigration rights, “The issue of immigration affects us all. The climate being created in this country is unacceptable and we should consistently make clear that we won't stand for this dehumanization and deprivation of basic human rights. In this instance, it was important to make clear our position that if OCA [Office of the Court Administration] continues to allow ICE to arrest our clients and deprive them of due process, it will not be business as usual. We will not normalize this behavior."

The attorneys will continue protesting until the Office of the Court Administration and Chief Judge Janet DiFiore implement a Sanctuary Court Policy. This policy would effectively bar ICE agents from entering courts to apprehend clients. Second, the attorneys are demanding an end to all deportations, and call for citizenship for all.

The next action will be a rally on Thursday, December 7 at 1 p.m.