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New York Gov. Cuomo sends ICE cease-and-desist letter, calls arrests ‘illegal’

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo delivers his state of the state address in Albany on Jan. 3. (Hans Pennink/AP)

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) issued a cease-and-desist letter to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on Wednesday, accusing the agency of making illegal arrests and describing its “aggressive tactics” in recent immigration raids across the state as unconstitutional and “un-American.”

Cuomo’s letter comes days after ICE completed an immigration raid in New York City and its surrounding counties that netted 225 suspected undocumented immigrants, 180 of whom had criminal convictions or pending charges, according to the agency. The legal status of a gubernatorial “cease-and-desist” order against the United States government is unclear.

At a news conference and in writing to ICE, Cuomo described multiple incidents in which he said ICE agents stormed private property without warning, without identifying themselves and without a warrant to arrest undocumented immigrants.

Cuomo warned that if ICE agents continued making arrests in this manner, “the state will sue them, period.” He also signed an executive order prohibiting ICE agents from making any arrests in state government buildings without presenting valid judicial warrants.

ICE Director Thomas D. Homan shot back at Cuomo late Wednesday, saying in a statement that ICE will refuse to “cease and desist from fulfilling our agency’s congressionally mandated mission of enforcing federal law.” Homan said the governor was “grandstanding.” He also took issue with the Cuomo’s characterization of ICE agents.

“The Governor’s comments were inaccurate and an insult to ICE’s sworn law enforcement officers who conduct their lawful mission professionally and with integrity,” he said, adding that “ICE officers acted professionally and within their legal authorities under federal law.”

Cuomo blamed what he described as an “alarming increase in the rate of arrests” and the “harshness in [agents’] behavior” on the Trump administration’s rhetoric about illegal immigration.

“I believe ICE has been politicized, if not directly then indirectly,” he said, “in that their aggressive tactics, aggressive behavior — unconstitutional, illegal behavior — is being fueled by the political rhetoric of the administration. … When you politicize law enforcement, now you are in a very bad place, and you are over the line. And whether that happens directly because [agents] are being told, or indirectly because they believe they’re following the spirit and the tone of the administration, that is a frightening place, and that is un-American.”

Arrests Cuomo cited as possibly illegal included one made on a dairy farm, one in a private residence and one targeting a local immigration activist.

The dairy farmer, John Collins, who attended the news conference with Cuomo, said that armed officers raided his farm in Rome, N.Y., last week to arrest one of his workers. Collins said the officers did not present a warrant when he demanded to see one. When he attempted to film the arrest, an agent threw his phone and then handcuffed him, he said. The alleged undocumented immigrant, Marcial De Leon-Aguilar, a native of Guatemala, had past convictions for aggravated assault and illegal reentry, ICE said.

“As an employer, I am responsible for protecting the people that are working on my farm,” Collins said. “When the federal government comes to my property, they must have a warrant and they must treat my property and the people on my farm with respect. Neither happened here.”

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said she was “deeply troubled” by the arrest and called for an investigation.

Gonzalo Mercado, an immigration activist in Staten Island, said at the news conference that agents raided a private residence looking for a person who no longer lived there but then arrested five people on the property anyway, each without a warrant.

Alina Das, a law professor specializing in immigration rights at New York University, said her client, Ravi Ragbir, was targeted by ICE because he is an outspoken immigration activist, an act that both she and Cuomo described as unconstitutional. Ragbir has an 18-year-old wire fraud conviction on his record.

Cuomo’s comments and executive action Wednesday are yet another chapter in the ongoing battle between the Trump administration and Democratic officials around the country. In sanctuary cities and states, local law enforcement does not hand over suspected undocumented immigrants to ICE without warrants, an effort to ease fears undocumented immigrants may have about reporting crimes to police. In California, for example, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf went as far as warning the immigrant community about an impending ICE raid ahead of time.

Critics and Homan say that sanctuary cities endanger public safety and ICE agents since they can’t detain people in the jail but must do so in the community at large.

But Cuomo said he believes ICE agents are the ones endangering public safety when they enter private property without warrants and without notifying local law enforcement of these raids. He said that the fiscal year 2019 budget contains a $10 million increase to a legal defense project that would allow undocumented immigrants to receive free “rapid response” legal counsel should they become entangled in an ICE raid, particularly ones without a warrant.

“I understand the president is philosophically opposed to what we believe in New York, but I also believe the president is wrong. I believe he is wrong in his policy. I believe that’s not what America is all about, because immigration is not just the New York story. It is the American story. I believe his heated rhetoric is now driving abusive practices like what we see at ICE. I think they violate the law, and I think it’s our responsibility as a state government to stand up and make that case.”

Cuomo said he would wait to take any legal action as he sees how ICE responds to his requests.

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