ITHACA, N.Y. — A local attorney and a client handling simple traffic violations at Ithaca City Court were confronted by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency leading to an arrest.

Attorney James Baker said he was with a client, who he declined to name citing attorney-client privilege, on March 21 in front of Judge Richard Wallace. Baker said someone whispered at the judge, who then motioned for Baker and Assistant District Attorney Andrew Kelly to approach the bench.

“He said he’d just been informed that ICE was waiting for my client to leave the courtroom. They intended to take him into custody for some sort of immigration issue,” Baker said.

The judge granted the attorneys a break, and Baker said he called several people before deciding that his best course of action was to ask the judge to hold his client on bail so the man could be taken to the Tompkins County Jail instead of being released into the arms of ICE officials.

Ithaca police escorted the man to the jail where Baker and the man’s friend started the process of bailing the man out.

Baker said he started feeling suspicious about what was happening when a process he thinks should take about 15 minutes took about 45 minutes.

When his client was was released, he said they left the jail with the man’s friend.

“I looked left, I looked right. I didn’t see any cars … or anything that looked suspicious,” Baker said.

But when they started approaching the car they planned to drive away in, he said two dark colored SUVs and seven or eight ICE agents “swooped down on us.”

“‘Oh shit. That’s it,’” he thought.

His client was taken into custody by ICE officials who are declining to release much information about the man.

 Khaalid Walls, regional director of communications for ICE, confirmed that ICE agents arrested a man from Turkey who was “illegally in the U.S. March 21 on immigration violations during a targeted enforcement action.” Walls cited his refusal to release the man’s names or specific charges to the Privacy Act on 1974, which states that while ICE can release specific information about people taken into custody, it is not mandated that the information be released.

Ithaca and Tompkins County both declared their sanctuary status last year after President Donald Trump vowed to crack down on illegal immigration. Previously, agencies like ICE focused their efforts on people who’d committed violent or sexual crimes. Since Trump’s election, however, immigrants who are in the country illegally have been taken into custody for minor offenses such as traffic tickets and other non-criminal violations.

According to CNN, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested 109,000 criminals and 46,000 people without criminal records in 2017. That’s a 171% increase in the number of non-criminal individuals arrested the previous year.

Unanimous vote: Ithaca now a Sanctuary City with some teeth

There have also been claims that ICE is targeting areas that have declared themselves to be sanctuary cities or counties.

Mayor Svante Myrick has previously said he believes ICE is targeting Ithaca due to its sanctuary status. Per city policy, anyone employed by the city, including police officers, are not permitted to provide ICE with any information about people custody.

However, ICE began making arrests in Ithaca last fall and at least three arrests happened in the city in January. Whether other arrests have happened locally is unknown.

“At the courthouse, I just couldn’t figure out how or why they would know about this particular court appearance which, frankly, only involved traffic tickets,” Baker said. “I was surprised that something like that showed up on their radar or whether someone called them…”

Baker said he’s represented the man in the past for another traffic violation and, to his knowledge, the man does not have a criminal history.

“…paying ICE agents to check the docket for traffic infractions….there must be better ways to spend our (public) money. That’s just my opinion,” Baker said.

Need help regarding an immigration issue? Contact the Tompkins County Immigration Rights Coalition Rapid Response Network at 607-358-5119 or the Tompkins County Workers’ Center at 607-269-0409 for help. 

Jolene Almendarez

Jolene Almendarez is Managing Editor at The Ithaca Voice. She can be reached at; you can learn more about her at the links in the top right of this box.