Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance (at podium) speaks during a press conference on Feb. 14 outside Manhattan Supreme Court calling on Federal I.C.E. agents to not enter New York City courthouses to arrest immigrants. (Jefferson Siegel / New York Daily News)
January 14th, 2019 By Stephen Rex Brown
When Justo Santos beat a murder charge in 2014, Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance wasn’t done with him — he referred Santos to ICE for possible deportation.
The move, which Vance says is appropriate under “rare and exceptional circumstances,” is unique to his office.
Spokespeople for the city’s other four District Attorneys said they were either unaware of their prosecutors ever referring defendants to Immigration and Customs Enforcement — or that their offices did not make such referrals as a matter of policy.
Vance only made one referral to ICE last year. His office would not say how many suspects it referred to ICE in 2016 and 2017, but insisted the number was very small.
“In some cases where non-citizen defendants are accused and convicted of very serious crimes, we can and should refer them to ICE for appropriate immigration proceedings,” Chief Assistant District Attorney Karen Agnifilo wrote in an internal memo March 2017. The memo notes that such situations are very rare and should involve supervisors.
The Legal Aid Society, which supports the “abolish ICE” movement, is not pleased with Vance’s policy.
“People think of Manhattan as a progressive bastion, but among the five boroughs it’s only Manhattan’s District Attorney who actively reports New Yorkers to ICE,” said Hasan Shafiqullah, Attorney-In-Charge of the the Legal Aid Society’s Immigration Law Unit.
“His office tries to justify this practice under the guise of public safety,” Shafiqullah said. “But undermining immigrant communities’ trust in the criminal justice system is really what threatens public safety. DA Vance should follow the lead of New York’s other four DAs in this regard and scrap this policy immediately.”
Prosecutors said Santos had managed to avoid facing justice for the 1986 murder of Inwood restaurant owner Jose Martinez. After the fatal shooting, Santos fled to the Dominican Republic, where he lived under a fake name.
In 2013 the case was reopened thanks to sleuthing by the victim’s daughter, Joselyn Martinez. She discovered that Santos was living in Miami, and authorities arrested him for the cold case murder.
But in 2014, a judge ruled the police and prosecutors violated Santos’s rights by waiting so long to arrest him.
Santos, who argued he acted in self-defense, walked out of the courtroom a free man — but not for long. Vance’s office soon referred Santos to ICE for lying on his citizenship application in 2007.
He was convicted of immigration fraud in Miami in July 2016 for not disclosing his criminal record. The sentence in that case could not be determined and efforts to reach Santos, 48, were unsuccessful. An ICE spokeswoman was on furlough due to the government shutdown.
“He deserved to be deported. He killed a human being,” said Joselyn Martinez, 41.
“I think Cy Vance did the right thing. I don’t have to bump into my dad’s murderer walking down the street.”
Three-term DA Vance has joined other district attorneys and advocates in criticism of ICE, which carries out President Trump’s harsh immigration policies. Vance has called for ICE to stop making arrests inside courthouses — a practice that many say has a chilling effect on the judicial process.
Vance has also advocated for sanctuary city policies, and created an in-house team dedicated to assessing collateral consequences for immigrants facing charges and accepting plea deals.
But last year, Vance’s prosecutors referred a defendant to ICE as a way to get around a judge’s unfavorable ruling. A Vance spokeswoman declined to identify the defendant, but did provide some details about the case.
The defendant, who was awaiting trial for his role in a shooting and gang assault, had his bail reduced on appeal, the spokeswoman said.
Prosecutors believed it was highly likely the man would flee, so Vance’s office requested an “immigration hold” from ICE that would have kept him in custody. The appellate judge’s lower bail order was reversed, the Vance spokeswoman said, so ICE ultimately never had to take the man into custody.
“We are dedicated to protecting the rights of immigrant New Yorkers,” the Vance spokeswoman said.