The Kings County District Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn is hiring two immigration lawyers—which is unusual for a DA’s office. They’ll work on cases that involve immigrants accused of minor crimes like turnstile jumping and drug possession in an effort to keep people from getting deported. Taylor Wizner reports.
WIZNER: The job posting on the King’s County District Attorney’s website is specific–only candidates with immigration defense experience need apply. The posting says it’s been standard practice for D.A. to disregard defendants’ immigration status. But now, the office wants its prosecutors to be aware of it, and construct deals on certain cases so as to avoid deportation. And it’s not just New York, parts of California are bringing more consideration of immigration consequences into their prosecution strategy.
ANGEL: Even a minor criminal violation could have a really disproportionate impact upon their lives.
WIZNER: David Angel is an Assistant District Attorney for Santa Clara. He says the D.A.’s office was one of the first in the country to change its practices after a 2010 Supreme Court ruling Padilla v. Kentucky said prosecutors should expand their role in negotiating settlements that don’t have adverse consequences on immigration status.
ANGEL: Reading it a little more broadly quite clearly stated that it was an appropriate and expected activity to come out of the shadows and be part of an intelligent plea negotiation.
WIZNER: Before the changes were implemented, Angel says there was disproportionate sentencing for immigrants with drug possession charges. Santa Clara County offers treatment programs for people caught with small amounts of illegal drugs. But immigrants couldn’t enter the program, because pleading guilty would subject them to automatic deportation. Now, prosecutors can make an arrangement they say is more fair.
Angel says since adopting the policy, the recidivism rate for the county has gone down, below the national average. And the office has been able to streamline cases, without being bogged down by appeals.
ANGEL: By doing this we allowed open cases to resolve quicker and more effectively.
WIZNER: Miriam Enriquez is Director of Immigration Affairs for the city of Philadelphia. About five years ago, she was working as an attorney for the Philadelphia D.A.’s office. She says she remembers one day she noticed the judge and defense attorney discussing how to structure the defendant’s sentence in a way not to trigger deportation. She wasn’t aware this was something the court considered.
ENRIQUEZ: And I just like really didn’t know what they were talking about so I went out and talked myself in and obviously realized that immigration consequences are something that that prosecutors should take into account.
WIZNER: Enriquez says the D.A.’s office around the country approaches cases with potential immigration status differently.
ENRIQUEZ: And it was my view that as a prosecutor the punishment should fit the crime.
WIZNER: But even with these changes, Zohra Ahmed, a Manhattan public defender, says having attorneys with knowledge of Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) isn’t always enough.
AHMED: Figuring out which charge would reduce the attention or scrutiny you would get from ICE is not an effective strategy. It still puts people at risk. The most effective way to protect our noncitizen clients from the threat of deportation is simply not arresting them.
WIZNER: Ahmed is a member of “5 Boro Defenders,” an organization of public defenders who advocate for social justice causes. She says she helped organize over 1000 people who called their district attorneys over the past two months to demand an end to small crimes prosecutions for immigrants.
Ahmed says there’s a new concern that defense attorneys are thinking about. Under the new administration, ICE officials can arrest clients, regardless of how the court rules. Now the attorneys are keeping a watchful eye out for ICE officials in court rooms.
Taylor Wizner, Columbia Radio News.