New Paltz resident Matthew Rojas was picked up outside of the New Paltz Justice Court November 27 by agents of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The incident has given a face to the ongoing debate about immigration reform, as friends raise money for Rojas’ defense and local officials consider how best to respond to tactics which have been characterized as both a challenge to the town’s sanctuary law and disrespect for the local justice system.
Rojas, 23, was arrested October 14 and given an appearance ticket to the town court to answer charges of marijuana and cocaine possession, returnable November 27. According to friends and county public defender Andrew Kossover, whose office was representing Rojas for those charges, ICE agents claiming they had a warrant for his arrest picked him up as he was on his way into court that day. Rojas is a so-called “dreamer,” meaning that he was brought to this country in contravention of immigration laws as a child and would thus have been eligible for a path to citizenship had the DREAM Act been passed into law. It was not, and the policy known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) adopted by then-President Barack Obama has been challenged and weakened since Donald Trump replaced Obama in the White House.
In any case, DACA eligibility depends upon the individual not having felony or serious misdemeanor convictions. While the cocaine possession Rojas was charged with is a felony, this would have been his first appearance in court, not a conviction by any interpretation. It’s not clear on what grounds a warrant for Rojas’ arrest was issued.
Friends say Rojas, a graduate from the Fashion Institute of Technology, is an active member of the queer community in New Paltz and Newburgh. In addition to being an activist, he promotes shows and is himself a drag performer using the name Fantasea. Kevin Halcott, a close friend, said Rojas is known “for standing up for women, queer people and anyone facing aggressive, toxic behavior,” and for doing this with gentleness and grace, de-escalating situations rather than compounding the conflict.
Halcott, who has been spearheading both fundraising and protest efforts on behalf of Rojas, said that they met through the New Paltz night life. (Halcott is a disc jockey.) Rojas made one phone call after his arrest to a mutual friend, and that is how Halcott learned that Rojas had found ICE agents “waiting on the courthouse steps” to arrest him.
New Paltz Town Board member Dan Torres, who pushed for New Paltz to become a sanctuary town where officials are precluded by law from cooperating with federal officials over immigration status, has been open in his displeasure over the situation. “I don’t know how ICE agents sleep at night,” he commented on Facebook. He later posted in the same thread that the agency “is an entity founded in fear and xenophobia and it operates as such by classifying immigrants as a national security threat. This warps the public view on immigrants.”
Others in the community don’t see anything wrong with detaining someone with questionable immigration status when accused of a crime. Todd Fillette, for example, wrote on Facebook that such agents act “in accordance with law, rules and regulations, which there is a process to change. Blaming ICE [agents] for doing their jobs doesn’t seem to be a practical point here.”
Kossover said how agents do that job matters. “What I find offensive is the manner in which they apprehend individuals on the way into court without any advance notice to the judge or the prosecutor,” he said. That can lead to the presumption the defendant didn’t appear as ordered. He confirmed that Rojas was apprehended in this fashion. Moreover, the attorney said that he had a private client picked up similarly. “It’s disrespect, in my opinion, for the local criminal justice system.” A “more professional” approach would have been to follow him into court, standing behind him if necessary, and only taking him into custody after that particular piece of legal business was complete.
Halcott said that just keeping tabs on where Rojas is being held is challenging, because ICE agents “are extremely rude on the phone” and contact with his friend is difficult to maintain. The system, as Halcott described it, is that one must leave a message at the detention facility first; Rojas was first in Beacon, but has since been moved to New Jersey. Upon receiving word, Rojas may make a collect call in return during certain designated periods, but Halcott and other friends have found that their cell phone service is not necessarily compatible and that these calls don’t always even come through.
The difficulties faced by Rojas’ friends are the same ones which burden county prosecutors who can’t easily get ICE agents to produce a defendant, particularly if the location of that defendant is unclear. According to Kossover, “It could be nonviolent minor charge in a town court, and the DA is placed in a position of doing all this work and serving papers just to close out the case properly.” A message requesting comment on this aspect from Ulster County District Attorney Holley Carnright was not immediately returned.
Raising money for an immigration attorney has had a quick start, with more than $13,000 raised in just a few days, but the first crowdfunding campaign has been closed to facilitate obtaining the money. According to Halcott, attorneys contacted have wanted payment up front, and don’t seem interested in waiting for the GoFundMe payment to clear. A second campaign has been set up to continue receiving support and there are also events planned at Bacchus, Snug Harbor and Joe’s East West in New Paltz.
Halcott believes that ICE agents are able to look at the sign-in sheet posted at the front of the courtroom, and that appears to have been the case. It’s a document anyone can review, as those appearing must page through it to locate their own names. Kossover said he’d spoken to a court employee who confirmed she was advised by ICE agents of their presence in the courtroom, and that they had later withdrawn, presumably to await Rojas’ arrival. Court offices were closed for the weekend when this reporter sought to reach employees there for comment.
Kossover said it’s also possible that ICE agents have access to police reports or other documents which could be used to track court appearances. In addition, “I understand that when someone is remanded to Ulster County Jail, or bail is posted, the current sheriff notifies ICE” agents.
No matter whether the tactics used are legal or savory, Halcott sees this as the epitome of immigration policy impacting human life. “This is the third person I’ve known” to be arrested by ICE agents, he said, and the damage to those individuals, their friends and their families is real and severe. “I hope this makes people realize that this can happen here,” he said. “It’s heartbreaking trying to swap messages with him. The system is really hard to navigate.”
As the debate over immigration regulation continues to roil the nation as a whole, the face of Matthew Rojas is fast becoming the one used to discuss it in New Paltz. On one side are those who say they only wish to see existing laws enforced, but for Rojas’ family and friends, the controversy has taken on a much more personal, much more human dimension than ever before.