City debates immigrant safeguards

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Two Council bills would further limit city’s cooperation with federal authorities


  • Protesters at a Jan. 29 rally in Lower Manhattan against President Donald Trump’s executive orders on immigration. Photo: Alec Perkins via Flicker

  • Mayor Bill de Blasio (left) and NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill respond to a Justice Department statement calling New York City “soft on crime” at an April 21 press conference at One Police Plaza. Photo: Edwin J. Torres/ Mayoral Photo Office

One day after a federal judge issued a temporary injunction blocking President Donald Trump’s efforts to withhold federal funds from so-called “sanctuary cities,” the City ouncil discussed a series of bills that would bolster protections for the city’s undocumented immigrants.

“Today we bring our legislative tools to bear on the very real threat coming out of Washington to destabilize and undermine our community,” Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said at an April 26 hearing on nine bills that would impact the city’s handling of immigration issues on an array of fronts.

Two of the bills apply to the city’s handling of identifying information — data collected by agencies that could be used to identify or locate individuals. One would establish a new unit within the Law Department tasked with reviewing city agencies’ collection and disclosure of identifying information to ensure that the city only collects information necessary to provide services. The other would limit city employees’ and contractors’ collection, retention and disclosure of identifying information.

Since Trump’s election, some city officials have feared that identifying information routinely collected by the city, which sometimes includes individuals’ immigration status, could be used by federal officials to enforce immigration laws. The city’s IDNYC municipal identification card program came under particular scrutiny after Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city would no longer store documents filed by card applicants and might destroy previously collected data, prompting a lawsuit from two Republican state assembly members from Staten Island seeking the preservation of the records. A judge ruled in the city’s favor in April, but the decision is under appeal.

One measure would bar city agencies from allowing non-local law enforcement officials, such as agents of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, to access non-public areas of city property, like schools, without a judicial warrant or under other specific circumstances. Another would prohibit NYPD and other city agencies from using city funds to assist in federal immigration enforcement and would require any requests for assistance by federal immigration enforcement agencies to be denied and documented.

New York City law already limits the situations in which police and corrections officials can cooperate with federal immigration enforcement officials in honoring requests to detain individuals, but another bill would expand the policy to the Department of Probation.

Lawrence Byrne, the NYPD’s deputy commissioner for legal matters, said that the NYPD turns individuals in its custody over to ICE only if ICE has secured a judicial warrant. To date, Byrne said, NYPD has received 182 detainer requests from ICE, but has not turned over a single individual. Byrne said that detainer requests under Trump are up from last year — the NYPD received 72 requests in all of 2016 — but that the department received more than 2,000 in 2014, the peak year under the Obama administration.

“We have turned nobody over to ICE in 2017,” Byrne said. “There have been people in our custody who subsequently have been picked up by ICE, either at the courthouse or from the Department of Corrections or other interactions between ICE and those people, but we don’t control what enforcement actions ICE can take.” He added, “We do not, as a matter of policy, ask crime victims or witnesses to crimes their immigration status.”

The introduction of the bills was spurred, in part, by Trump’s January executive order on immigration that called for so-called sanctuary jurisdictions like New York, which limit cooperation with federal officials in enforcing immigration laws, to be barred from receiving federal funds. The day before the hearing, however, a federal judge blocked the enforcement of that portion of the order with a temporary injunction that applies nationwide.

Mark-Viverito said the ruling affirmed that Trump’s executive order is “nothing more than an unconstitutional effort to punish sanctuary cities for defying the president’s anti-immigrant and fear-mongering agenda.”

Days before the hearing, the Justice Department called New York City “soft on crime” in an April 21 statement regarding funding for sanctuary jurisdictions, drawing an immediate rebuke from de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill, who held a press conference at One Police Plaza. “I find this statement to be absolutely outrageous,” O’Neill said, adding that it made his “blood boil.” Attorney General Jeff Sessions later walked back the statement and praised the NYPD on ABC’s “This Week,” but said that enforcing immigration laws would make the city “even safer.”

Two of the bills expand the responsibilities of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. MOIA Commissioner Nisha Agarwal said that the de Blasio administration supports the council’s efforts to expand protections for undocumented immigrants, but urged lawmakers to revise the bills to maintain consistency with existing policy and not impinge on the city’s ability to provide services.

“We strongly recommend that the council consider the administrative and operational burdens that these bills, as currently written, would place on city agencies, in a manner that could impact access to services for many New Yorkers,” she said, noting that new requirements on the Law Department in the information collection bills could affect the agency’s operations.

Agarwal said that one bill, as currently written, could prevent police from enforcing certain criminal warrants, and that bills pertaining to information collection should be broadened. “In seeking to remain consistent with the city’s approach, we believe the legislation aimed at protecting identifying information should broadly address the privacy concerns of all New Yorkers,” she said. “Instead of a particular focus on requests from federal immigration authorities, as currently reflected in the bills, we recommend adopting a broader approach that recognized the privacy concerns of all.”

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