NEW YORK (AP) — A video showing a group of migrants brawling with police in Times Square has touched off a political furor and renewed debate over a long-standing New York City policy that limits cooperation between local police and federal immigration authorities.
The surveillance footage, recorded Jan. 27 outside a Manhattan homeless shelter, shows several men kicking officers on a sidewalk and trying to pry them off a man police had taken to the ground. Police have arrested seven people in connection with the attack, though prosecutors dropped charges against one person they say may not have been involved.
Nobody was seriously hurt, but the video of officers being pummeled has prompted waves of public outrage. Some of that fury has been directed at prosecutors and the court system after several of those arrested were freed from jail while awaiting trial.
Increasingly, New York City officials have aimed dire rhetoric at the tens of thousands of asylum seekers the city has put up in shelters and hotels over the past year. Some of the comments have dismayed immigration advocates, who say they are stirring up hatred over the actions of a few bad apples.
“A wave of migrant crime has washed over our city,” Police Commissioner Edward Caban said at a news conference Monday about a Venezuelan man being sought in a series of cell phone robberies. He likened the suspect's accomplices to ”ghost criminals," claiming they had come to New York “with no criminal history, no photos, no social media.”
The NYPD released a video showing Mayor Eric Adams joining officers as they raided a Bronx apartment building in connection with that investigation Monday morning. The video included ominous music and an officer warning of “migrants preying on vulnerable New Yorkers," while footage plays of a woman being dragged behind a scooter during a purse-snatching.
Pressed for details to back up the claim of a crime wave, however, police and city officials said they couldn't provide them because the city doesn't track crime trends by the nationality of suspects.
Most categories of crime are down since a surge of migrant arrivals began 18 months ago.
Alexa Avilés, the head of the City Council's committee on immigration, accused the mayor and the NYPD of playing into "the same old Trumpian fear mongering and the systematic scapegoating of a diverse and vulnerable group of people.”
“I thought ‘crime was down?'” Avilés added. “Where is the evidence to support these claims?”
In press appearances Monday, Adams noted the vast majority of the nearly 175,000 migrants who have come to the city are law abiding. He said it would be wrong for “any New Yorker to look at people trying to fulfill the next step on the American Dream as criminal.”
But in recent days, Adams has also shown a willingness to pull back on a set of laws that often block the city from cooperating with federal immigration enforcement efforts.
Describing the Times Square incident as “an attack on the foundation of our symbol of safety,” Adams, a moderate Democrat and former police captain, called on the City Council to consider “if there should be more collaboration" with federal immigration officials. He did not elaborate.
Since 2014, the police department and city jails have been barred from holding people in custody on behalf of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement unless they have been convicted of certain violent crimes and a judge has issued a warrant for their removal.
Federal immigration authorities don't have a presence in the city’s jail system. City resources aren't supposed to be used to assist in the detention and deportation process.
Experts said it wasn’t immediately clear what role, if any, the city’s so-called “sanctuary” policies may have had in the cases of the men accused of assaulting officers in Times Square.
An ICE spokesperson did not respond to an emailed question about whether they were seeking to detain the individuals involved in the brawl.
Though police officials have expressed outrage that five of the six suspects arrested were released, the city’s immigration policies have no bearing on the decisions of prosecutors and judges who set bail.
Responding to public criticism, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg has said his office was still working to ensure that all the men were correctly identified. One of the men arrested was not prosecuted because of insufficient evidence of his involvement, a spokesperson for Bragg said.
He said additional people involved in the attack would likely be arrested in coming days. Prosecutors are to present evidence to a grand jury starting Tuesday.
Proponents of the city's sanctuary laws say they bolster public safety by ensuring immigrant communities are not afraid of interacting with the legal system – not only as criminal defendants, but as witnesses or potential victims of crimes.
A decade ago, New York City held up to 3,000 people in custody each year for the purpose of helping federal immigration authorities initiate detention and deportation proceedings. In some cases, immigration attorneys said, police would proactively alert federal authorities immediately after making an arrest – long before a conviction was secured.
At a news conference Monday alongside conservative elected officials, Kenneth Genalo, the field office director in New York for ICE, said the city’s lack of cooperation had made it harder to deport criminals.
“We’re no longer contacted,” he said. “There are hundreds of people being arrested throughout the city, and if we can’t determine which ones are the most violent, we have to find out unfortunately through the media.”
Murad Awawheh, the executive director of the Immigration Coalition, warned that the mayor's comments about rolling back sanctuary protections could have a chilling effect among the city’s more than half-million undocumented immigrants.
“Why are they fanning the flames now?” Awawdeh said. “It seems he’s trying to get people to look away from the bigger issues, which is his lack of management of the city at the moment."