On a frigid evening in late March, Elijah Stevens, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, embarked on the slow process of door-knocking in Ridgewood for signatures to get Tiffany Caban on the ballot of the race for Queens District Attorney. Standing in the doorway of a middle-aged Latina constituent, Stevens launched into the spiel about Caban’s platform to “stop prosecuting low-level drug charges” and “decriminalize poverty.”
Then he paused. “And she wants stop ICE agents from showing up at court,” Stevens said, pulling out a flier on the subject. The woman’s ears seemed to perk up. She proceeded to sign the petition and invited him to come back to the house to speak to her daughter who was upstairs, after she was done putting her baby to sleep.
“So far the ICE thing feels evocative,” said Stevens. “It’s like, ‘Oh, so now I’m excited.’ I honestly think we got a few signatures because of that.”
While the effort to stop ICE’s courthouse raids has become a rallying cry of progressive Democrats in Albany, and several candidates in the Queens district attorney race, Tiffany Caban — a progressive public defender — poses a solution that goes one step further than her challengers: prosecute the federal agents themselves.
Last week, the Immigrant Defense Project (IDP) released a report that showed Queens to be the second highest borough for ICE courthouse enforcement after Brooklyn, with 33 arrests in 2018.
ICE’s court operations in New York state have shot up 1,736 percent since 2016, according to the IDP. For immigrant survivors of domestic and gender-based violence, a number of trends correspond to this bump. These trends include a decrease in orders of protection against intimate partners, a drop in survivors seeking assistance at Family Justice Centers, reduced communication with law enforcement and increased fear of compliance with court orders, among others.
Caban sees the district attorney as having a unique authority to combat the disproportionate effect of ICE’s enforcement strategies on immigrants seeking relief in court.
Stevens put it this way: “If we believe in our criminal justice system — we believe that it fundamentally works — then you would want people to be able to show up in front of a judge.”
Other district attorney candidates such as Borough President Melinda Katz, general practice attorney Betty Lugo and prosecutor Jose Nieves have made critical statements about ICE agents’ court enforcement, but no one else has proposed prosecuting them.
Caban suggested to QNS that section 195 of the New York State Penal Code would allow her to enact this policy. The statute defines misconduct as occurring when a public servant as commits “an unauthorized exercise of his official functions.”
But this raises a big question of interpretation: what deems a public official’s activity to be “unauthorized”? To answer this question, Caban began with two clearcut examples that she would be looking out for: excessive force and sexual assault from ICE officers.
“That is a crime. That’s something that could be prosecuted,” said Caban. “Even Larry Krasner has done it with police officers in Pennsylvania at this point. He’s been prosecuting police officers over their official oppression statute to deter illegal stop-and-frisk.”
But she wouldn’t stop there. Caban said that she would also want to broaden the meaning of misconduct to include the very presence of ICE agents at courthouses across the borough. Even though she admitted that making this argument would be an uphill battle in court, she said she sees it as one that’s worthwhile.
“What’s going to happen with some of these other things, you get into the land of appellate stuff and getting the pushback and it’s about making new case law, creating new precedent. And you can’t do that unless you have the fight to begin with,” Caban said.
If the night of canvassing gives any indication, the residents of Ridgewood, a neighborhood with a foreign-born population of 38.9 percent — lower than that of Queens as a whole at 47.5 percent — were responsive to this policy.
Caban said the response mirrors her experience representing immigrant clients as a public defender. She said she recalled one client at particular risk for deportation who would shake and cry before walking into the courthouse.
“And I couldn’t tell her that she didn’t have a reason to be scared. So our communities, I think, recognize how important this is,” said Caban.