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Times Union: ICE field director defends stepped-up enforcement

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When it comes to being arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, there is no difference between a violent felon and an undocumented worker with a traffic ticket.

If you are in the United States without the proper papers, you are subject to deportation, Tom Feeley, the upstate New York field office director of ICE, said Wednesday.

“We were ordered not to fully enforce the law under the previous administration,” said Feeley, who is based in Buffalo, said. “Under President Trump, we are enforcing the law the way Congress wrote it. If it’s a heinous crime, like a Columbian drug lord who was a cartel member who we just deported or a rapist, a murderer, a pedophile or somebody who is here illegally, we are going to enforce the law. We make no apology for that.”

This year in Saratoga Springs, ICE arrested 36 Mexican and Guatemalan men, many of whom worked in local restaurants. Mayor Joanne Yepsen, City Court Judge Jeffrey Wait, other leaders and concerned citizens said immigrants accused of minor infractions should be treated differently from those facing felony charges. The arrests, which began in the spring and went through the fall,  rattled the hospitality industry. Farther afield, dairy farmers were shaken too.

“ICE doesn’t target employers,” Feeley said, “But, illegal immigrants work where they can blend in.”

Feeley’s field office made 1,736 arrests in the 2017 fiscal year from October 2016 through September 2017. In the previous year, Buffalo ICE arrested 1,454. In general, monthly arrests of noncriminals were half of criminal arrests – except this past September when criminal and noncriminal arrests in upstate New York were equal at 81.

Some of those arrests took place in courthouses. “It’s a safe environment,” Feeley said. “Everyone has already gone through security.”

Last month, Saratoga Springs City Court was the scene of a confrontation between a judge and ICE  when a 21-year-old Mexican national appeared on a DWI charge. Judge Wait barred ICE from the courtroom but the ICE agents arrested the man when he walked out.

His case was taken up by the Immigrant Defense Fund, a New York City advocacy group lobbying to ease what it sees as “aggressive ICE enforcement.”

One local immigration attorney, Siana McLean who and has been practicing for seven years and works for the Tully Rinckey law firm, said the change at ICE complicated life for immigrants.

“It used to be if you overstayed, you were released on your own recognizance as the case worked its way through the court,” McLean said. “Depending on the personal circumstances, we would look at the options available. Now, people are packed up and detained.”

The 36 men arrested in Saratoga Springs were sent to ICE’s 650-bed detention center in Batavia where most detainees get free legal counsel through the Volunteer Lawyers Project. Cases are heard by a  judge who decides if an immigrant should be deported. When they are, they are usually sent to the capital of their home country. The Saratoga Springs men, if deported, would be taken to Mexico City or Guatemala City and from there find their way back to their hometown.

Feeley said that people who think that ICE is going too far must take that up with Congress.

“Only Congress can change the law,” Feeley said. “The American people need to act if they want it changed.”

For now, he said, “Our director, Tom Homan, says it best. When people speed, they fear being stopped. If people don’t pay their taxes, they fear the IRS. If you are in New York state illegally, you fear being removed.”

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