Hundreds of men and women in turbans, saris and business suits wait quietly in the New York District Office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, clutching identical white manila folders that contain their legal documents. Standing in a single file line that snakes around the lobby, Jose , an illegal immigrant facing deportation, is not alone.
His team of supporters includes two pastors, a lawyer and three volunteers, all part of the New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City, an organization calling for an end to the Department of Homeland Security’s involvement at Rikers Island.
Jose was arrested and held at Rikers pending an arraignment on his case. Although all criminal charges against him were dropped, he was transferred to federal custody, detained for a year and is now facing deportation. Jose’s hearing has been delayed until January. (To avoid identifying him, the Uptowner has agreed to change his name and omit details of his case.)
But future arrests of undocumented immigrants may bring less harsh consequences. In November, Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed a landmark law that will end collaboration between New York law enforcement agencies and federal immigration authorities in detaining illegal immigrants who, like Jose, have no criminal records. The law will take effect in March.
For 16 years, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security, has arranged with municipal, county and state law enforcement to help identify illegal immigrants, under a program known as Agreements of Cooperation in Communities, or ACCESS.
The New York Police Department, for example, has allowed the immigration agency to receive case information on detainees and to maintain a trailer at Rikers Island. Last year, 2,552 inmates were released from the city’s Department of Corrections directly into federal custody, according to the law.
Spearheaded by East Harlem Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, the law comes at a time when states like Arizona and Alabama have expanded their ability to enforce federal immigration law. But Bradley Shaw, a Washington Heights immigration lawyer familiar with the law, said New York views immigrants differently.
“In New York City, immigrants are part of our daily life. We connect with them on a one to one basis,” he said. “That changes people’s hearts, because they realize why people are here. They are here to work, take care of their family.”
Although immigration laws are civil and not criminal, ACCESS is geared toward police departments because they often are the first to get custody of undocumented immigrants, said Shaw.
“If you get arrested at a traffic stop and they run a background check or ask for ID, and you cannot show that you are a legal resident or have authorization to be here, you are detained,” said Shaw.
In the past decade, the federal government has requested that a police department inform Immigration and Customs Enforcement if an illegal immigrant is released on bail or if charges are dropped. The agency requests that police detain the person for up to 48 hours. “ICE will then come and pick them up,” said Shaw.
The New Sanctuary Coalition started its campaign in August 2009, joining with Make The Road New York and the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights to inform the public about ACCESS and to call for an end to immigration authorities’ involvement in New York City jails.
“A lot of how this actually functions or doesn’t function is hidden,” said the Rev. Kaji Spellman, who accompanied Jose to his court hearing and co-chairs the New Sanctuary Coalition. “When stuff isn’t visible, it can’t be challenged. Even our presence is a challenge.”
In addition to accompanying undocumented immigrants to court appearances, New Sanctuary mobilizes political and religious support to try to prevent deportation.
Mark-Viverito said that advocates from Open Road New York and the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law approached her with a legislative strategy to end deportation of immigrants with no criminal record.
“Many of us were not aware that there was a direct relationship between the Department of Homeland Security and our correctional facilities, and that there were actually federal agents based in Rikers Island,” she said.
Mark-Viverito met with City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and held rallies and information sessions to promote the bill. “Considering that it was historic legislation, there was kind of a concern that maybe we didn’t have the authority to legislate,” Viverito said. ”So there was a lot of back and forth in terms of tweaking the legislation.”
Once Quinn was on board, the next challenge was convincing Bloomberg to shift his position on the ACCESS program, said Mark-Viverito.
“The administration was indicating along the way that they were not supportive of the changes we were trying to enact,” she said. “We tried to encourage them to make administrative changes so that we wouldn’t have to legislate it. They were not open to that.”
According to Mark-Viverito, the Bloomberg administration felt no need to change the way the Criminal Detention Program operated.
“They weren’t convinced despite the fact that, according to the Department of Correction’s own data, it was clear that 50 to 55 percent of the people having these detainers dropped on them were people who had no criminal past and were for low offenses, misdemeanors,” she said.
After meeting with representatives of the Department of Homeland Security and the Commissioner of the Department of Corrections, the City Council had a second hearing.
“When we finally were able to draft legislation and show them that there was a way that we could fulfill what we were asking for and still keep people safe, they saw that they couldn’t fight it, I guess,” said Mark-Viverito of the Bloomberg administration.
“What do you do in situations where there is not a major criminal background to warrant holding this person? That’s what this law is trying to address,” Shaw said
The law prevents the Department of Corrections from holding individuals once charges are dropped and from notifying federal authorities of their release. It does not apply to illegal immigrants who are charged with crimes, have cases pending or are on a terrorist watch list.
While he praises the law, New Sanctuary organizer Ravi Ragbir said that the coalition’s work is far from over.
“It’s a first step, because the people impacted by this law are a small fraction of the ones who need help,” said Ragbir.
Mark-Viverito said the law acknowledges the economic contributions all immigrants make to the city. Immigrants represent 43 percent of the city’s overall workforce and contribute 32 percent of the City’s revenue, according to the law. “The future of the city’s cultural and economic growth is at risk because of a current political climate that is focused on the deportation of immigrants,” the law states.
“My hope is that we can encourage other municipalities that have similar relationships to the ones that we do with the Department of Homeland Security to enact similar legislation,” said Mark-Viverito. “So that is the next step, that we can take this to other areas and maybe encourage people to think about it as well.”