Kevin Halcott was friends with Matthew Rojas for a year-and-a-half before he got a call from Rojas’ roommate telling him the 23-year-old had been arrested by ICE agents outside the New Paltz Town Courthouse.
Halcott tells me this at a back table in Mudd Puddle, a local coffee spot squatting among two rows of eclectic dark-wood shops leaning over a broad walkway down by the Wallkill River.
A self-professed anarchist who has worked for immigrant rights since he grew up on Long Island, Halcott looks like Stephen Miller’s white nightmare: stringy violet hair sprouting out of a pink stocking cap, a fuchsia rhinestone dangling from one ear, two giant pinky rings nearly obscuring his finger-tats. He tells me he does not believe in borders.
His opinions and garb are not beyond the pale in New Paltz, an alt-hippie college village at the base of the Shawangunk Ridge, where only 21 percent of residents voted for Donald Trump. In 2017, the municipality passed a local law declaring itself a sanctuary city, barring municipal employees from providing information to ICE.
This is not a place friendly to immigration enforcement actions.
Rojas, a gay Fashion Institute of Technology graduate who had lived in the U.S. since he was a young child, is now sitting in an ICE detention facility in Newark, waiting for his fate to be decided.
Rojas, a Costa Rican citizen, entered the U.S. on a non-immigrant visa in January 2000 and “failed to leave the United States within the required timeframe,” according to an emailed statement by ICE.
Rojas was a “Dreamer” — a DACA recipient, according to Halcott and Rojas’ criminal defense attorney, though ICE refused to confirm if he was part of the program.
President Trump and his then-attorney general, Jeff Sessions, announced in September 2017 the administration would be phasing out DACA. From that day on, the program would not be accepting any new applicants, though those already on DACA could reapply.
Rojas did not renew his status, Halcott said.
“There’s a lot of people who, once Trump came into power, were too afraid to throw themselves back into the system, because it is a dangerous time,” he said. “From my understanding, it got difficult and dangerous for Matt to keep renewing his Dreamer status.”
Rojas was arrested by state police at 4:30 a.m. Oct. 14 on State Route 32 North in New Paltz. He was the passenger in a 2004 Ford Scion that was pulled over for traffic violations, according to state police spokesman Steven Nevel.
Police smelled marijuana coming from the car, giving them probable cause to search the vehicle, Nevel said, after which they charged Rojas with unlawful possession of marijuana, a violation, and felony possession of cocaine.
Though Rojas had expressed anxieties about interactions with police because of his immigration status, Halcott said, he seemed unconcerned about his upcoming court appearance.
“He actually seemed kind of confident about what his lawyer said — that his charges would be reduced, and it wouldn’t be a big deal,” Halcott said.
Rojas arrived at the New Paltz Town Court Nov. 27 to answer to the charges accompanied by his boyfriend (who declined to be interviewed for this article) and was arrested by ICE agents outside the courthouse.
The Ulster County District Attorney’s Office later announced in court they were prepared to drop the felony cocaine charge to a misdemeanor, according to the New Paltz Court Clerk’s Office.
Rojas’ ended up in the Essex County Correctional Facility, an ICE lockup in an industrial area of Newark off the Passaic River.
Rojas is now facing two very distinct legal proceedings: his criminal case and his immigration case. The criminal case is being undertaken in New Paltz Town Court, where he is defended by local attorney MariAnn Connolly, who took over his case last week from the public defender’s office.
His immigration case is being heard in federal immigration court, where he is defended by Lee Wang, an attorney at the Immigrant Defense Project.
New Paltz Fights Back
Late the night of his ICE arrest, Rojas was able to make a call, Halcott said.
“Matt was able to get a phone call to his roommate and give (them) a list of people who he wanted to know the scoop, to start to work on how to get this all figured out,” he said.
The list was “his inner circle,” Halcott said, who received one of the calls.
Also on the list was Rae Leiner, the executive director of the Newburgh LGBTQ+ Center. She set up a GoFundMe page that day to pay for an immigration lawyer. The campaign raised more than $13,000 in three weeks from more than 500 people before the campaign was cashed out to pay the attorney.
A second GoFundMe page has since been set up for his immigration defense.
The fundraising was not just confined to the Internet. Bands donated their profits, a fundraising “drag ball” was organized, and cash was raised nearly every night at Snug’s, a local music venue and dive bar.
Rojas’ supporters raised funds at “pretty much any event they allow us to go on stage,” Halcott said.
The Monday after Rojas’ ICE arrest was supposed to be his first time hosting Queer Night, a weekly event with DJs. It was to be Lady Gaga-themed, with drag queens performing the singer’s ballads throughout the night.
The event was held anyway — more performers signed up after Rojas’ arrest, and it was turned into a fundraiser, Halcott said.
Though unable to be there in person, Rojas’ friends were able to get him on the jailhouse phone, and he introduced the show from the detention center, Halcott said.
“It was just a really powerful, powerful show, and show of love,” Halcott said. “A really strong scene came together — the queer community, the drag community, the local activist community,” he said.
A protest was also held the Saturday after Rojas’ ICE arrest.
Halcott was part of a group of Rojas’ friends who visited him in Newark. Halcott said sitting in the waiting area before being searched had an impact on him.
“It’s all single mothers with kids calling for their father who’s locked up by ICE, and it’s a real fucking horrific movie scene,” he said. “If you’ve never seen that kind of thing before, it’s really hard to sit through — these broken families.”
Rojas is able to cook his own food and spends much of his time teaching other detainees English and studying his case, Halcott said, but, some days, “it gets really dark for him.”
“It’s a struggle for him to keep his head up (and think) that this might change soon, when in reality he’s sitting around there with people who have been there for 18 months…it’s definitely very tough on him in there,” he said.
A ‘Sanctuary City’
This wasn’t supposed to happen in New Paltz. Again.
Joel Guerrero, a New Paltz resident who emigrated from the Dominican Republic when he was seven, was arrested by ICE in early 2017 during a scheduled check-in due to a 2007 marijuana-possession conviction in North Carolina, according to the Times-Herald Record. He was released after 71 days.
While Guerrero was in a detention center, New Paltz passed a law prohibiting town employees, such as police officers and court clerks, from cooperating with federal immigration enforcement.
Under the law, employees cannot ask about someone’s immigration status; cannot honor an ICE detainer — a request for local law enforcement to hold someone in custody until ICE can get there — unless the person has been convicted of certain crimes; cannot provide ICE access to anyone in police custody; and states police must inform anyone listed in an ICE detainer they are wanted by the federal agency.
New Paltz Deputy Supervisor Dan Torres, who helped pass the law, explained how it worked.
“If you are undocumented and you call the New Paltz Police, your immigration status has no bearing on that call,” he said.
“If you’re undocumented, and you’re the victim of a crime, or you’re the witness to a crime, are you going to come forward if you think the town police are going to potentially notify ICE?” He asked hypothetically.
Rojas was arrested by ICE despite the sanctuary city law for two reasons: the law only applies to municipal employees, whereas he was arrested by state police; and, however it was ICE knew precisely when Rojas’ court date was, there was nothing stopping the agents from marching up to the courthouse themselves and arresting him.
Torres believes he has a solution for this.
He wants to adopt a local law — which is “presently being reviewed by more than one attorney” — making it illegal for ICE to arrest someone on courthouse property without a warrant
signed by a judge. ICE arrests people for civil violations of immigration law, which do not need to be approved by a judge, and instead are approved by ICE itself.
A similar law is being considered in the New York State Assembly, with Hudson Valley Assemblymember Kevin Cahill supporting the bill as a co-sponsor.
Though more research must be done, Torres said, he believes such a law has simply not been tested yet, and the authority the town has over its own courthouse should supersede ICE’s federal authority.
ICE’s arrest of Rojas at a local courthouse infringes, “or comes very close to infringing” on the Tenth Amendment, commonly called the “state’s rights amendment,” because it undermined the town’s local authority.
“New Paltz town police can’t storm into a federal court hearing and cuff someone and march them out the door,” he said. “No one would think that is an appropriate measure.”
Courthouse Detentions and The Dreamers
Before Trump took office in 2017, courthouse arrests by ICE were largely unheard of in New York state. In fact, only 11 people were arrested by ICE in New York courthouses in 2016, but that number jumped to 144 in 2017, according to the Immigrant Defense Project (IDP).
These detentions have a “chilling effect,” as immigrants balk at accessing the legal system.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the National Immigrant Women’s Advocacy Project released a report earlier this year surveying police and judges to document this “chilling effect.”
Twenty-two percent of police officers reported immigrants were less likely in 2017 than 2016 to make police reports, and 21 percent reported immigrant crime victims were less likely to help police in the investigation of the crime committed against them, according to the report.
Fifty-four percent of judges reported in 2017 court cases they presided over were interrupted because immigrant crime victims were afraid to appear, as compared to 43 percent in 2016, according to the report.
Earlier this December, dozens of retired high-ranking judges, including former Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals Jonathan Lippman, wrote a letter to ICE’s acting director demanding the agency stop courthouse arrests, citing the chilling effect on the court system and stating the actions “undermine the justice system.”
“We know that judges simply cannot do their jobs – and our justice system cannot function effectively – if victims, defendants, witnesses, and family members do not feel secure in accessing the courthouse,” according to the letter.
MariAnn Connelly, Rojas’ attorney for his criminal case, said it was “very disturbing” her client was arrested by ICE at the courthouse.
“It certainly chills the process and encourages people not to come, not to report, not to be involved in the criminal justice system on any level, and it’s just a shame,” she said.
Albany Law School Professor Sarah Rogerson, who leads the school’s Immigration Law Clinic, said she thought Rojas’ arrest was part of a “new tactic” by ICE to make arrests directly outside court buildings instead of within to be less intrusive, a tactic she feels makes little difference.
“Anytime that you have the threat of ICE agents at or near a place where the public frequents to obtain government services or access justice, you have a problem,” she said.
It was hard to summarize the prevailing feelings of the immigrant community, but “a climate of fear” had descended on the community since Trump’s election, Rogerson said.
Rogerson is encouraging DACA recipients to continue to reapply, as they are required to do every two years, since those who received DACA status before Trump ordered the program halted are still considered documented.
Presidential elections are in less than two years, and a new administration would most likely be more favorable to DACA, Rogerson said, so it was advisable to stay on the list.
“The idea is, you have nothing to lose by renewing your application,” she said.
Though Rojas’ did not renew his DACA status because of fears of Trump’s immigration policies, according to Halcott, it is not known if his expired DACA registration had anything to do with his ICE arrest, or if ICE would have arrested him even if he had renewed.
DACA did not change immigration law, but instead promised to not enforce certain laws, Rogerson said. This “prosecutorial discretion” gives ICE a huge amount of leeway in deciding what kind of immigration cases to pursue under the new administration.
The Case Going Forward
When asked how long Rojas’ immigration case could take, Rogerson said it wasn’t unusual for adjudications to take a year, and the wait was increasing: she had just talked to an asylum seeker whose next court date wasn’t until 2024.
The national backlog for immigration cases reached almost 1.1 million in November, double what it was just before Trump’s election, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.
Rojas’ criminal case in municipal court is still pending. ICE did not get him to his last court date, but the Ulster County District Attorney’s Office assured Connelly that ICE would transport her client to court for his next appearance Feb. 5.
Meanwhile, New Paltz is continuing to raise money for Rojas’ immigration case. The next fundraising event is as New Paltz as you can get — six DJs spinning tracks at Bacchus, a micro-brewery and show space off Main Street.
The Facebook event page screams out the call for action, using Rojas’ drag name.
“Free Fantasea NOW.”
Correction: This article has been updated to correct the manufacturer of the car Rojas was pulled over in. Toyota manufactured the Scion, not Ford. A previous version of this article also referred to the organization Prof. Sarah Rogerson leads as the Immigrant Law Clinic. It is the Immigration Law Clinic.