DOWNTOWN BROOKLYN — Plainclothes agents with Immigration and Customs Enforcement took four men into custody outside Brooklyn Criminal Court Thursday morning in what appeared to be a coordinated operation, according to a source and attorneys with Brooklyn Defender Services.
About half a dozen agents were posted outside the courthouse at 120 Schermerhorn St. and attorneys spotted them nabbing two men around the corner on Smith Street just after 9:45 a.m., said attorney Nathaniel Damren, who witnessed the two men being led away.
"I came here and I saw what I thought were officers lurking, and a couple of unmarked cars double parked," Damren said. "I didn't see them grab the guys around the corner on Smith Street, but I saw them walk them to a car on Schermerhorn Street."
It was not immediately clear when or where the other two men were detained.
Agents arrested Eduardo Romero, Juan Villa, Fredy Rosas and Sergio Perez Thursday morning, all four of whom were facing criminal trespass charges stemming from an incident in July, in which the four men were busted for hanging out on a roof in Sunset Park, records show. Romero was also caught with a switchblade when he was arrested, and was facing a misdemeanor charge of weapons possession, according to court records.
According to a ICE spokeswoman Rachel Yong-Yow, all four men are members or affiliates of the "Ninos Malos" street gang, but she did not specify how ICE determined their membership in the gang.
According to Yong-Yow, all four men had entered the country illegally, but it was not immediately clear how long they had been in the United States.
"Absent a viable address for a residence or place of employment, a courthouse may afford the most likely opportunity to locate a target and take him or her into custody," she said in an email. "In such instances where deportation officers seek to conduct an arrest at a courthouse, every effort is made to take the person into custody in a secure area, out of public view, but this is not always possible.
Attorneys for the men were not immediately available for comment.
Video shot by Damren — which he did not share because it showed a detainee's face — appeared to show agents leading one man to an unmarked car, and a photograph shot by another attorney showed agents placing another detainee into a car.
A group of plainclothes ICE agents declined to comment when a reporter asked them what they were doing outside the courthouse, but they scattered when a reporter took their photo and one agent flipped the reporter off as he drove away.
The other agents entered the courthouse and hung around outside the courtrooms used for arraignments, but left around 10:30 a.m., as media gathered outside.
Scott Hechinger, a senior staff attorney with Brooklyn Defender Services, criticized the operation for creating a climate of fear among immigrants who might need to use the court system.
"Criminal and family court should be sanctuaries where defendant and victim should be able to come without fear of deportation, and what ICE is doing undermines justice," he said.
A spokeswoman for the New York ICE field office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The practice of arresting immigrants at court has drawn criticism from state and local law enforcement officials who say it intimidates the victims of crime.
A spokesman for acting Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez referred questions to earlier comments he had made on the practice of ICE agents arresting people at court.
“The federal authorities claim they are making America safe again, but the truth is that their immigration enforcement policies are making all of us less safe. We encounter more and more victims and eyewitnesses to crime who are fearful of moving forward because of immigration status, and we see arrests by ICE spiking in our courthouses, including Family Court and courts dedicated to helping human trafficking victims and those with mental health issues," he said in August.
"ICE should treat courthouses as sensitive locations, like it does schools and houses of worship, to allow everyone free access to our justice system and stop the chilling effect felt by victims and witnesses.”