New York City bill seeks to stop federal immigration 'dragnet'

A New York City Council bill announced Thursday would put strict conditions on when the city would hand over people to federal immigration authorities.

Seth Wenig/AP
Riker's Island jail in New York. US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has an office here.

New York City is set to join a host of other jurisdictions in limiting its cooperation with federal authorities in the name of expanded immigrants' rights.

A bill announced Thursday would narrow the conditions under which the city would comply with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) requests to detain people.

Supporters see the bill as a rebuke to federal policies that they say are too aggressively anti-immigrant, and they hope it will act as a model for other big cities. Critics say it will allow for the release potentially dangerous criminals.

The bill stipulates that the city would not honor an ICE request to detain an immigrant unless the request met two conditions: It includes a warrant from a federal judge, and the immigrant has been convicted of a "violent or serious crime."

The issue arises because of ICE practices. ICE can request a temporary detainer to hold someone in jail whom a court has released. During that time, ICE can extract the immigrant and place him in federal detention. 

Under the new bill, ICE could still pursue immigration charges against any immigrant. But New York would only allow ICE to use its jails in very narrow circumstances.

"Nothing here prevents immigration [authorities] from separately pursuing immigration penalties," says Nancy Morawetz, a professor at New York University Law School. "But the idea is to separate them. When they're mixed, there are a lot of unintended consequences, and that's what we've seen in New York." 

The issue is a significant one for a city with such a large immigrant population. If passed, the bill could drastically reduce the number of immigrants arrested in New York City.

About 250 jurisdictions around the country have decided not to honor ICE detainer requests. But New York sees itself as adding significant heft to the trend.

"By further limiting ICE's role in the detention and deportation of immigrant New Yorkers, we set the national standard for the treatment of our immigrant population," said New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who is set to introduce the bill next week, in a statement. "Families will no longer be needlessly torn apart by ICE's dragnet enforcement efforts."

The bill would also close the ICE office on Rikers Island, the primary jail complex for New York City. Immigration advocates say the agency uses its presence there to find people to deport. 

Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he supports the bill. A representative for the ICE New York field office declined to comment. 

Thursday's bill would extend previous New York City legislation that has sought to protect people with no criminal record from being turned over to immigration authorities. Despite past efforts, about 4,000 people are turned over each year, according to Alisa Wellek, co-executive director of the Immigrant Defense Project and an advocate for the bill.

The new bill offers "increased clarity that it may be unconstitutional to hold people without a warrant," Ms. Wellek says. People with detainers are held an average of 134 days, more than twice as long as a citizen, she says.

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