On the morning of Jan. 21, 1993, Niki Rossakis shot and killed her severely abusive
On the morning of Jan. 21, 1993, Niki Rossakis shot and killed her severely abusive husband. In 2017, after serving over twenty-five years and being denied parole three times despite an impeccable prison record, Niki was finally granted parole—and in the process helped to inspire a movement to help other incarcerated women and to reform the parole process itself.
In early 2017 Niki Rossakis, a Queens native who fatally shot her severely abusive husband in 1993, was scheduled for a new parole hearing after a state appellate court ruled, on November 10, 2016, that the parole board’s decision denying her parole for a third time was “so irrational as to border on impropriety and [was] therefore arbitrarily and capriciously rendered.” Others may not have taken a second glance at this appellate victory, but to Sanctuary Legal Center Director, Dorchen Leidholdt, and Weil Gotshal Senior Counsel, Richard Rothman, the opinion and the new parole hearing for Niki carried the possibility of becoming monumental.
Niki’s husband, Gary Rossakis, had been severely physically and sexually abusive to her throughout their marriage. In 1993, despite being advised to refrain from sex while she was healing from a medical procedure, Niki’s husband sexually assaulted her and threatened to rape her. Convinced that he was going to kill her, Niki shot and killed her husband with one of the many guns he possessed – guns that he had used to threaten her in the past. Niki was convicted of murder in the second degree and sentenced to 24 years to life. On appeal the sentence was reduced to 15 years to life.
During her time in prison, Niki proved that she was worthy of parole. She completed two associate degrees and multiple rehabilitative programs, obtained intensive trauma-informed therapy, received offers of a job and housing upon release, and achieved the best possible score on her COMPAS Evaluation – which tests one’s inclination to resort to violence, substance abuse, and/or criminal behavior. Even after accomplishing so much, however, Niki was denied parole on three separate occasions in 2009, 2011, and 2013. Each time the parole board asserted that Niki failed to articulate remorse because of her continued assertions that she was a victim of domestic violence. Niki’s hopes of parole seemed to diminish with every passing year.
Help finally arrived in 2016 when Dorchen Leidholdt, Legal Director at Sanctuary for Families, and Richard Rothman, Senior Counsel at Weil Gotshal and Manges LLP, became interested in the case and offered to represent Niki at her next parole hearing. When asked how he became involved, Richard Rothman said it was simply a matter of wanting to help:
“I first heard about Niki Rossakis from Dorchen Leidholdt, who I believe had learned about Niki from the co-chair of Sanctuary’s PBC. Dorchen called to ask her if she needed representation after having been denied parole three times, and then travelled to the Taconic prison in Bedford, New York, to meet with Niki on a Saturday. Dorchen asked me if I could work on the case with her, and I jumped at the opportunity.”
Earlier that year, an Article 78 petition seeking a new parole hearing had been filed on Niki’s behalf, which Judge Alice Schlesinger approved. In January 2017, with the pro bono representation of Sanctuary and Weil Gotshal, the Parole Board finally granted parole to Niki after more than twenty years in prison. Inspired by their success, Leidholdt and Rothman founded the Initiative for Incarcerated Survivors of Gender Violence with the hopes of improving the parole system for survivors of gender violence.
The Initiative for Incarcerated Survivors of Gender Violence (“the Initiative”) is a collaboration among legal and social services organizations, law firms, advocacy groups, former judges, formerly incarcerated survivors, and other individuals committed to assisting survivors of gender violence currently serving prison time in New York State.
“As a leading advocate and service provider for victims of gender-based violence, Sanctuary is proud to be a founding member and co-chair of the Initiative, and excited to be involved in this critical work.”
Since its founding in 2017, the Initiative has grown into a multi-faceted program, while maintaining its devotion to incarcerated survivors. The Initiative works to achieve three main goals:
(i) To provide representation in matters relating to parole; (ii) Engage in advocacy to improve the justice system’s approach to parole release decisions for incarcerated survivors; and (iii) To provide education and training on issues of gender-based violence for those involved in parole and clemency decision-making. These three main pillars are designed to help survivors like Niki Rossakis get the legal counsel and parole preparation that is needed before their hearings.
WHY IT ALL MATTERS
Although it may seem as though Niki’s case is highly individualized, the reality of the matter is that most incarcerated women have been subjected to physical and sexual abuse during childhood or adulthood. As victims of gender violence, but also as perpetrators of violent crimes, they face a complicated and often misunderstood battle in seeking parole. More times than not, the parole board does not grant parole due to a variety of reasons, which include failure to admit remorse and responsibility, need for rehabilitation, and chances of recidivism. As was illustrated in Niki’s case, the parole board tends to misconstrue identification as a victim as the opposite of remorse. This becomes especially problematic once factors such as the prevalence of PTSD among survivors are introduced. Such realities make gender violence survivors a unique subset of the prison population for whom special assistance, like the Initiative, is essential.
Currently, the Initiative relies on pro bono legal services, which are provided by Davis Polk, Latham & Watkins, Paul Weiss, and Weil Gotshal. Representatives from each of the firms partner with members of the Initiative, who train and mentor the attorneys. Because there is no right to counsel for parole applicants, many individuals eligible for parole prepare for their interview on their own, which, unfortunately, becomes a scary, overwhelming, and sadly unsuccessful endeavor. In order to mitigate this issue, and assist with the training of volunteers and attorneys of the Initiative, Sanctuary has created a Parole Training Manual and a complementary Resource Library, both of which aim to increase awareness and knowledge for the incarcerated subjects of gender violence.
In addition to creating change through legal representation, Sanctuary is also working on behalf of incarcerated survivors of gender-based violence by meeting with those involved in the parole and clemency decision-making process. This includes recent meetings with Alphonso David, the Governor’s Counsel, and Tina Stanford, Chairwoman of the Board of Parole, as well as an upcoming training for all of the Parole Board Commissioners. These meetings have resulted in positive outcomes, including expressions of interest and excitement about working with us. We look forward to continuing to partner together with individuals in the Governor’s office and within the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision on matters of parole and clemency.
MAKING IN-ROADS AT TACONIC CORRECTIONAL FACILITY
Lastly, Initiative volunteers have reached out to Taconic Correctional Facility to assist in identifying potential clients as well as allowing us to provide parole preparation and gender-based violence training. According to Sanctuary staff and member of the Initiative, meetings with the superintendent at Taconic have gone well. According to Nicole Fidler, Director of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Program,
“We are very fortunate to have the support of Taconic Correctional Facility’s new Superintendent, Tanya Mitchell-Voyd. She has met with us twice and has encouraged us to engage with both the staff at Taconic and with the women incarcerated at Taconic. Building partnerships with Correctional Facilities in New York is critical to our ability to effectively serve incarcerated survivors.”
Leidholdt and Sanctuary Clinical Director and Initiative member Laura Fernandez recently conducted a training on gender-based violence for staff at Taconic Correctional Facility. The Initiative hopes to continue partnering with Taconic to conduct trainings and outreach.
Although there is still a long road ahead, we are confident that our work will soon produce tangible change in not only the parole hearing process, but the lives of those who are have been affected by this complicated and dated process.
 In one study of women incarcerated in Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, it was found that 82% had been severely physically or sexually abused as children and 93% of women convicted of killing sexual intimates – current or former husbands, boyfriends or girlfriends – had been physically or sexually abused by an intimate.
On November 16th, the New York City Council voted in favor of passing a law to criminalize the non-consensual distribution of sexually explicit images. Read the speech survivor and former Sanctuary client, Nathaly, delivered at the press conference.
On November 16th, the New York City Council unanimously voted to pass a law criminalizing the non-consensual distribution of sexually explicit images. Cyber sexual abuse (also known as “revenge porn”) is an increasingly common and particularly devastating form of domestic violence. It is thanks to the bravery of survivors like Nathaly who have spoken out that this much needed law passed.
Read the speech that Nathaly delivered at the press conference before the vote:
“My name is Nathaly and this is my story. My ex boyfriend of almost ten years ago recorded me behind my back while we were having sex. I had no idea I was being recorded and throughout all these years I didn’t know he had the recording. Almost ten years later he began to stalk, harass, and threaten me all because I did not want to talk to him.
During this time I was in a beauty pageant. He knew about my running in the pageant and wanted to make sure I would never have chance at winning. So he posted the video that he recorded of me on pornography websites with information about me so people would know who the girl is in the video. Even though the video didn’t have my face in it, to know that my body could be seen by just anyone was absolutely terrifying. I felt extremely embarrassed, violated, scared, hurt, and at that point I no longer wanted to live. This was one of the most horrifying experiences of my life. I couldn’t eat, sleep, go to work, I couldn’t even search the web in fear that I just might see something of myself on the internet. This affected me so greatly that it literally immobilized me from having a normal happy life. I no longer believed in myself nor in my dreams.
As I stand her today I want to speak for everyone out there who has experienced or is currently experiencing something similar. I want you to know that you are not alone! You can be strong and brave and with the help of programs like Sanctuary for Families, you can get through this! Don’t blame yourself – this is not your fault! Please continue to fight. Don’t allow this to define you. You are great. Never stop believing in yourself, continue to reach for your dreams!
With all this being said, I believe the law needs to be changed. Recording somebody in a sexual state and posting it on pornography websites without their consent should be illegal! This can greatly help people who are victims from this horrific abuse.”
Our statement on the Trump administration’s decision to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
On behalf of all of us at Sanctuary for Families, I am writing to express my profound disappointment at the Trump administration’s decision to terminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA).
Since its implementation in 2012, DACA has provided close to 800,000 young people who were brought to the U.S. as children with work authorization and temporary protection from deportation. The Trump administration’s decision to terminate the program in six months’ time and gamble the futures of these talented and ambitious young people is cruel, senseless, and strikes at the core of our values as an agency.
Over the last five years, Sanctuary’s Immigration Intervention Project (IIP) has assisted 127 clients with DACA status. 60 of these clients have received more permanent forms of immigration relief, but 67 remain in limbo. Our clients are both the children of gender violence survivors and young survivors themselves. Their families fled to the U.S. to escape pervasive poverty and gender-based violence. All are true survivors, showing great courage and resilience in the face of abuse, systemic discrimination, and injustice.
Today, Sanctuary for Families reaffirms its commitment to immigrant survivors and families. In anticipation of DACA’s expiration this March, our immigration attorneys will be working double-time, prioritizing the cases of those dependent on DACA and looking for alternative forms of relief. Our agency will be working with community organizations and city and state officials to protect undocumented survivors and families in New York, but we know that will not be enough.
You can help. I hope that you will join me in contacting your representatives on both national and state levels and encouraging them to protect these vulnerable young people.
Hon. Judy H. Kluger
Executive Director, Sanctuary for Families
Over the last month and a half, Sanctuary has joined with fellow immigrant and social services providers, New York City Council members, the State Attorney General, and acting Brooklyn DA to call on ICE to stop raids and arrests in New York courthouses. Read the remarks and testimonies our staff have delivered.
On the morning of Friday, June 16th a Chinese woman at the Queens Human Trafficking Intervention Court was about to have her case adjourned when Judge Toko Serita called her attorney from Legal Aid Society to the dais. According to Judge Serita, immigration agents were waiting outside the courtroom to detain her. In an effort to protect their client, the Legal Aid attorneys asked the judge to set bail so that the client would be held in custody thereby providing her attorneys with time to make a plan. Watching the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents circle the courtroom, attorneys and clients waiting in the hallway began to panic.
Many of the defendants in New York City’s Human Trafficking Intervention Courts are immigrants and the increasing reports of arrests at or near courthouses has only served to fuel the climate of fear already prevalent within immigrant communities. Over the last month and a half, Sanctuary has joined with fellow immigrant and social services providers, New York City Council members, State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, and acting Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez to call on ICE to treat courthouses as sensitive locations, similar to houses of worship and schools, and stop raids and arrests in New York courthouses.
Read the remarks our Executive Director Hon. Judy H. Kluger delivered on the steps of City Hall, the testimonies Sanctuary staff members Yvonne Chen and Carmen Rey gave at the June 26th New York City Council hearing, and the speech staff attorney Jillian Rudge prepared for the State Attorney General and acting Brooklyn District Attorney’s August 3rd press conference.
Written remarks of Hon. Judy Harris Kluger Rally on the steps of City Hall
June 22, 2017
Good morning. I am Judy Kluger, Executive Director of Sanctuary for Families –one of New York’s leading advocates and service providers for human trafficking and domestic violence survivors.But, before I came to Sanctuary in 2014, I had the privilege of serving as a New York State Judge. One of the proudest moments in my years on the Bench was working with Chief Judge Lippman to spearhead the creation of Human Trafficking Intervention Courts.
When we created these courts, we envisioned them as a place that would offer a compassionate and comprehensive response to the problem of human trafficking in New York. To this day, these Courts serve as an intervention to help people break the cycle of exploitation and arrest.
The majority of defendants before the Intervention courts are vulnerable immigrants. I am appalled that Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents showed up at a Human Trafficking Intervention Court in Queens to arrest a victim of sex trafficking whose case was on the docket that day. Their actions violate the absolute sanctuary that these courts offer people who have been victimized and brutalized by violent pimps and johns. But the ICE agents’ intrusion into the Human Trafficking Court is not the only cause for alarm.
Their presence in our courts is having a chilling effect on domestic violence survivors who seek protection from their abusers in our Family Courts, places that should be safe havens for traumatized victims and their children. How can Sanctuary for Families – and other service providers – urge clients to get the lifesaving remedies they need, when deportation hangs over their heads?
No one should be afraid to seek justice in a court of law and ICE’s actions are spreading waves of fear among the most vulnerable among us. If this continues, ICE will drive trafficking and domestic violence away from the courts and into the world of violence they are trying so desperately to escape.
Written Testimony of Yvonne Chen, Manager of Outreach,
Anti-Trafficking Initiative, Sanctuary for Families
The New York City Council, Committee on Courts and Legal Services
Chair, Council Member Rory Lancman
Hearing on June 29, 2017
Good afternoon. My name is Yvonne Chen, and I am the Manager of Outreach for the Anti-Trafficking Initiative at Sanctuary for Families, one of New York City’s leading providers of services for survivors of trafficking and other forms of gender-based violence. We are grateful to the New York City Council for the opportunity to testify today—and to Council Member Lancman for calling this urgent hearing to discuss the crisis triggered by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement appearances in our city courtrooms.
Most recently, less than two weeks ago, ICE agents entered the Queens Human Trafficking Intervention Court, a problem-solving court whose goal is to identify trafficking victims and offer comprehensive services to assist them in escaping their abuse, not only from the massage parlor owners and brothel keepers who hold them captive, but from the thousands of sex buyers who rape them with impunity. As such many, if not most, of the defendants are themselves victims of horrific crimes, and feel hopeless about their prospects for getting help.
The terrifying appearance of three male ICE agents, to detain them rather than investigate the abuses against them, not only failed to protect public safety: by eviscerating the trust the courts had carefully nurtured, ICE aided traffickers in instilling the kind of fear in victims that discourages them from seeking justice.
Sanctuary was closely involved in the creation of the Human Trafficking Intervention Courts (HTICs) in New York City and statewide over the past five years. These courts are a powerful means of identifying trafficking victims, offering them social and legal services as an alternative to criminal conviction. In partnership with some of New York’s preeminent law firms, Sanctuary launched a Pro Bono Project at the Queens HTIC in June 2014. Today, hundreds of trained lawyers provide high-quality legal services to trafficking victims including immigration, public benefits, family law and criminal conviction vacatur. Perhaps even more importantly, these mandated consultations are an opportunity to identify indicia of severe forms of trafficking.
Since the launch of the HTICs, Sanctuary has provided immigration consultations and counseling services to increasing numbers of victims in Queens and in Brooklyn—from 57 in 2014, to 370 in 2016. Among service providers working in the City’s trafficking courts, Sanctuary has elicited the highest rates of victim disclosure, due to the culturally and linguistically sensitive and trauma-informed interviewing techniques utilized by our staff and pro bono partners. The outcomes reveal a brutal industry that preys upon some of the most defenseless members of society—many of them Chinese and Korean women, most of them mothers and, in some cases, grandmothers—who come from impoverished rural communities with little education. Hoping to escape abuse in a land that they believed valued human dignity, these women instead have been coerced into providing sexual services through debt bondage and under threats of arrest and deportation.
On June 16, ICE sought to detain one such defendant, a Chinese woman believed to be a trafficking victim, who, like many of the East Asian defendants seen by Sanctuary, had been arrested for unlicensed massage. This young woman had been in touch with Sanctuary in the past, and was on track to have the charges against her dismissed after completing her mandated services. Instead, by complying with the legal requirement to appear in court as scheduled, she suddenly risked detention and deportation. All of this occurred in front of dozens of other immigrant defendants in the same situations—and many surely resolved at that moment never to return or complete their services.
Victims seeking justice in the courts—whether trafficking survivors in the HTICs, or domestic violence survivors in Family Court—should never be fearful of accessing protections offered by the criminal justice system. These courts should remain havens for traumatized victims. How can Sanctuary and other service providers responsibly encourage clients to seek the lifesaving help they need in the courts while the menacing presence of immigration agents are likely to be there? This only makes our city LESS safe: immigrant crime victims are driven into the shadows, less likely to report crimes for fear of arrest and deportation, while their exploiters flourish, emboldened with this extra layer of fear they can use to coerce their victims into submission. And it weakens the efforts of service providers, who can no longer reassure clients that they will be safe in the courts.
To illustrate this, let me describe to you the scene at court when ICE agents appeared on the scene two weeks ago: after court broke for lunch, two Chinese women approached me anxiously, questioning why ICE was there and if they were going to be deported next. They were terrified to even exit the courtroom and asked me to escort them outside so they could get some food, as they had been waiting since early morning for their case to be heard. As we were about to exit the courthouse, they panicked and decided to remain huddled inside the courthouse rather than risk arrest. I could tell they were famished, but because they could not bring themselves to step outdoors, the best I could do was bring them some stale bagels. As I sat with them for a few minutes, they wondered how they could possibly finish their sessions and return to court given the risk that doing so could cause them to be deported.
The mental health ramifications on a population of immigrants such as those in Queens, scores of whom fled traumatic experiences of state control in China, is chilling. Coming from places where corruption runs rampant, our clients experience overwhelming anxiety and paralyzing fear of public systems, especially the justice system. As a result, we must repeatedly explain to them that we are not representatives of the court or immigration.
Our multilingual staff works hard to gain their trust so that clients understand our assistance is safe and confidential. However, having been betrayed by supposed friends who trapped them into illicit massage parlors, where customers are often permitted to beat, rape, stab or strangle them for their sexual pleasure, fear and suspicion remain high. Unfortunately, the challenge of identifying victims and gaining their trust is getting more difficult, not less. Given the anti-immigrant sentiment expressed by the current federal administration, non-citizen victims are so terrified of the risk of being deported just for reporting their abuse, they choose not to come forward at all.
Immigrant victims must not be allowed to believe what their traffickers tell them: if you try to escape and seek help, the American government will arrest you and lock you up instead. Our courtrooms must remain a sanctuary for victims of crime seeking justice. Thank you for listening to this testimony—and thank you for your work on behalf of our most vulnerable neighbors.
Written Testimony of Carmen Maria Rey, Esq., Deputy Director, Immigration Intervention Project, Sanctuary for Families
The New York City Council, Committee on Courts and Legal Services
Chair, Council Member Rory Lancman
Hearing on June 29, 2017
Good afternoon. My name is Carmen Maria Rey. I am the Deputy Director of the Immigration Intervention Project at Sanctuary for Families, one of New York City’s leading providers of legal, clinical, housing, and employment services for survivors of human trafficking, domestic violence, and other forms of gender-based violence. We are grateful to the New York City Council for the opportunity to testify today, and to Council Member Lancman for calling this hearing to discuss the impact of having agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) present and engaging in immigration enforcement efforts in New York City’s courtrooms.
The presence of ICE in New York’s courtrooms deeply concerns us because it has unquestionably created a chilling effect on victims of domestic violence and trafficking seeking to exercise their legal rights in New York’s Courts.
A recent survey conducted by The Immigrant Defense Project this June found that of 225 advocates surveyed, 74% reported having worked with immigrants who expressed fear of the courts because of ICE’s presence there, and a further 45%—that is, close to 110 advocates—reported having worked with immigrants who failed to file a petition, or who withdrew a petition because they were afraid of encountering ICE in the court. Most concerning for us as attorneys and advocates working with survivors of domestic violence and trafficking, 67% of survey respondents working with survivors reported having had clients who decided to not seek help from the courts because they feared encountering ICE there.
These survey results are extremely troubling. Abusers and traffickers share one common trait: they exercise power and control as an instrument of abuse, attacking their victims where they are most vulnerable to keep them under their control. For immigrant victims, especially those with tenuous or no immigration status, the weapon of choice is clear: abusers and traffickers routinely threaten their victims with deportation and permanent separation from their U.S.-born children and other family in the U.S. as a tool to prevent them from calling authorities and ending the abuse.
For decades, organizations like Sanctuary have worked tirelessly to gain the trust of immigrant victims and assure them that if they come forward to report the crimes committed against them, we can keep them safe from their abusers and traffickers; that ICE will not be able to just find them and take them away, and that, most importantly, they will be safe with our law enforcement officers and with judges in our courts.
That trust that we developed over decades has been severely damaged since January of this year. Routinely now the news report incidents of ICE arresting litigants in our courts—even attempting the arrest of a survivor of human trafficking in the Queens trafficking part two weeks ago. This lends credence to the threats victims have heard for years—sometimes decades—from their abusers and traffickers. These days, even in our professed “sanctuary city”, being an immigrant in a courthouse seeking to exercise your right to safety and protection may well lead to arrest, detention, and deportation by ICE.
Over the past several months, immigrant clients have been particularly apprehensive about going to Family Court to seek orders of protection, custody and child support. They have even expressed concern about protecting their property rights in divorces: “If I make my husband mad, he will call ICE to come and get me in the courtroom.”
Of the hundreds of our clients that have been too afraid to proceed with litigation in the Courts, one of the most heartbreaking stories is that of one of my longtime clients, Maria, who is too afraid to seek an order of custody and visitation in Family Court against her daughter’s father, a man who beat her brutally for over a decade and recently kidnapped their daughter.
Maria’s abuser knows that she entered the country unlawfully and that, in 1998, at the age of 17, she was convicted of a minor drug-related crime. This means that, despite having lived in the United States for nearly thirty years, and having a young U.S. citizen daughter, Maria is a priority for deportation. Her abuser knows this, and has threatened Maria that if she tries to get her daughter back, he will call immigration and have her deported. He doesn’t know where she lives, but if she files for custody, he can tell ICE where she will be on the day of her Court hearing, and they will likely come to arrest her.
This means that Maria is too afraid to seek the one legal remedy that would be available to her—suing for custody and visitation in Family Court—because she is too afraid to come to the attention of immigration authorities and be deported from the U.S. and never see her daughter again. And as advocates for Maria, as the situation currently stands, we unfortunately cannot assure her of her safety in court.
In closing, we strongly believe that the courts must remain a sanctuary for all New Yorkers in need of help, and that ICE’s presence in the courts has had a tremendously damaging effect on immigrant victims of domestic violence and trafficking in need of protection from the courts.
Thank you again for the opportunity to testify.
Written remarks of Jillian Rudge (never publicly delivered) Press conference co-hosted by State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and acting Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez
August 3, 2017
Good morning. My name is Jill Rudge. I am an Immigrant Justice Corps Fellow and Staff Attorney at the Immigration Intervention Project of Sanctuary for Families – the City’s largest provider of legal services for victims of domestic violence and human trafficking. Sanctuary for Families provides services to some 17,000 adult and child New Yorkers per year, and over 70% of our clients are immigrants who come from over 140 countries.
We are grateful to Attorney General Schneiderman and District Attorney Gonzalez for the opportunity to join the voices calling for to ICE raids in our courthouses. We too are concerned that ICE’s presence in our courts undermines access to justice for New Yorkers because it deters non-citizens from accessing the courts as both cooperating witnesses on criminal prosecutions, and as litigants in civil cases – which is especially harmful to victims of domestic violence and human trafficking.
ICE’s presence in our Courts breeds fear, and abusers and traffickers exploit that fear to ensure that victims are too afraid to help put an end to their exploitation. Along with other legal providers across NY State, we have noted a marked increase in the number of our clients who cite fear of deportation as a reason to not call police or cooperate in a prosecution of their attacker or trafficker. A recent Immigrant Defense Project survey reports that 74% of advocates polled across New York are experiencing the same uptick at their organizations, and that nearly 70% of those working with survivors of domestic violence or trafficking reported having clients who decided to not seek help from the courts because they feared encountering ICE there.
One example of the choices victims are being forced to make daily across New York State is the situation being faced by our longtime client Maria, who, like many of our clients, is too afraid to seek an order of custody and visitation in Family Court against her daughter’s father, a man who beat her brutally for over a decade and recently kidnapped their daughter. Maria’s abuser knows that she entered the country unlawfully and that at the age of 17, she was convicted of a minor drug-related crime. Despite having lived in the United States for nearly thirty years, and having a young U.S. citizen daughter, Maria is a priority for deportation. Her abuser uses this information to threaten her that if she goes to Court to get her daughter back, he will call immigration and have her deported. He doesn’t know where she lives, but if she files for custody, he can tell ICE where she will be on the day of her Court hearing, and they will likely come to arrest her. This means that for the first time ever, Maria is too afraid to seek the one legal remedy available to her—suing for custody and visitation in Family Court—because doing so means coming to the attention of ICE and never seeing her daughter again.
Maria’s story also highlights how the presence of ICE in our courts is not just an immigrant issue. Immigrant families are of mixed immigration status, and include United States citizens. Whole families and communities are being negatively impacted by the fear generated by ICE’s presence in our courts. This is not just an immigrant’s rights issue – this is an access to justice issue concerning all New Yorkers.
For decades, organizations like Sanctuary have worked tirelessly to gain the trust of immigrant victims and assure them that if they come forward to report the crimes committed against them, we can keep them safe from their abusers and traffickers; that ICE will not just find them and take them away; and that, most importantly, they will be safe with our law enforcement officers and with judges in our courts. That trust developed over decades has been severely damaged by ICE’s arrest of immigrant New Yorkers in our court. As a result, victims are going unprotected, and witnesses are being silenced. Even in our “sanctuary city”, being an immigrant in a courthouse seeking to exercise your right to safety and protection may well lead to arrest, detention, and deportation by ICE.
In closing, we strongly believe that the courts must remain a sanctuary for all New Yorkers in need of help, and that ICE’s presence in the courts has had a tremendously damaging effect on immigrant victims of domestic violence and trafficking in need of protection.