New Paltz resident nabbed by ICE agents outside of town court

Matthew Rojas

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.

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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.

There are 30 comments

  1. Pete Boggs

    This is appalling. Mr. Rojas has lived his whole life here, and the commenter above me is celebrating ICE taking this man away. The article is appalling, and the xenophobia and racism that fuels the anti-immigrant hysteria is appalling. We need to prevent this from happening again.

  2. Julian Brachfeld

    Don’t you liberals ever get tired of regurgitating lame stream drivel ?
    There is nothing xenophobic or racist about protecting our borders and wanting those who wish to come here, to do so LEGALLY.
    You keep singing that worn out song, but those of us with more than a single functioning brain cell know better.
    NOBODY has a problem with legal immigration. NOBODY !
    What taxpayers DO have a problem with is the constant theft of our hard earned money to support those here illegally. That is nearly $120 BILLION dollars a year that could be much better spent on taking care of legal citizens in need, and I know many.
    Sanctuary cities are a direct slap in the face to those who came here legally and did whatever was necessary to attain legal citizen status.
    That this escapes those on the left is an embarrassment to our republic.
    You really need to wake up.

    1. Joseph LaFiandra

      “NOBODY has a problem with legal immigration. NOBODY !”

      You are correct if, by NOBODY, you mean the current occupant of the Oval Office.

      “Trump Unveils Legislation Limiting Legal Immigration” – NPR August 2, 2017

      “One of Trump’s campaign promises was to reduce immigration, illegal and legal. The Cotton-Perdue legislation, also known as the RAISE Act (for Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy), would cut by half the number of legal immigrants accepted into the U.S. each year.”

      1. Reality check

        Every country has the right to dictate the level of immigration it allows, and every country does. America has done this through out it’s history and rightfully so. No country is obligated to allow immigration. Try moving to Monaco and let us know how that does!

    2. Katie

      He’s my friend. He graduated from high school here. He went to college here. He contributes to his community. He’s a good person. You don’t know him. Leave us alone while we try to get out friend back.

  3. Tom Williams

    Marijuana and cocaine possession. See ya later , bye. It must be hard to live you’re life in a civilized country then be sent to what could be a third world setting and broke! These liberals want to blame Trump yet, Obama is the one who put an expiration date on his prescious dreamers. You got to give him credit. Either Hillary wins and extends or makes it permanent or GOP wins and let’s it lapse, makes Hillary a hero or GOP the bad guy to the multitudes of flakes. Our country has a cancer, now we the tax payer get to give all federal employees a paid day off to honor a traitor, ass grabbing, Kennedy killing pos. God bless Trump…

  4. legalamerican4sure

    New Paltz should be interviewed by Journalist, Jorge Ramos. He supports DACA. He praises DACA! And disagrees with US Constitution and believes he can “can change” the law that is beneficial to illegal aliens, ten times more, than the generations of 5th., 6th., 7th., American Families. New Paltz vicinity and surroundings are trash, significantly. Production of “customer’s” to a drug king pin & family on trial in New York, today, are contributors. This dumb kid, Matthew Rojas and family are entitled to appropriate legal conviction of a felony. Their dreams have no values. The booking in breaking the law is 100% eligibility in deportation. ¡Hasta la vista!

  5. :(

    The comments on this article are heartless. Being caught with drugs is a victimless crime. Plenty of people in their early 20s will experiment with drugs. Plenty of white kids will just get a slap on the wrist for it. NO ONE deserves to get taken away from their friends and community and sent to an unfamiliar country for something as minor as that. People want to focus on the fact that he was in possession of drugs (which shouldn’t even be considered a crime in the first place) instead of focusing on all the positive things this person added to the community. You have to be seriously sick if you think he deserves anything that’s happening to him. I can’t even imagine how helpless he must feel.
    If he has spent most of his life in this country, what’s the difference if he was born here or moved here at the age of 3? He might as well have been born here. Sending him away for that would be sick.

    1. Guess again

      Victimless crime!? If only you knew…. statistics show time and time again the disasters that are the communities with high drug rates. Tell the families/friends of people who overdosed that drugs are a victimless crime!

    2. Jack smith

      Victimless like the countless children that OD every year and the families torn apart by addiction. This criminal is a known drug dealer, and not a US Citizen. Just because of his heritage is not enough of a reason to justify donwplaying his crimes.

  6. Bye Bye

    Dreamers know that any pathway to remain in this country is contingent on acceptable behavior and NOT commiting felonies. He knows this and if he doesn’t care, why should I? He is an adult and responsible for his own actions. Stop trying to make believe that all dreamers are poor defenseless children. Are we supposed to wait until he nods out behind the wheel and kills somebody? Great job ICE, keep up the great work you are doing. Hasta la vista, Rojas! He blew it for himself, so stop trying blaming it on something else.

  7. Chuck wagon

    get with it times are changing.. two countries have legalized all drug. drug overdoses down 80% addiction down 50%.don t know about crime. States that have legalized pot have also seen a drop in crime.Maybe if we legalized prostitution the crimes against women wold drop and get rid of most of the sex traders.

    1. Curious

      I’m curious to know whre you got these stats, I hope they are accurate but am doubtful. The reduction in overdoses is probably thanks to Narcan, not reduction of use.

  8. Jack Smith

    This individual was arrested for felony drug possession, not immigration. The people behind the GO FUND ME are utilizing hot button issues to make a quick buck. Please be aware that I have received information from a reliable source that there are multiple fraudulent go fund me pages. Please do not donate until we get everything sorted out.

  9. Adam P. suny

    Legalize All Drugs, Open Borders, Let This Man Go Free immediately.
    Who Cares That A Person Smokes Weed and Enjoys Coke, Big Deal, Get A Life Grow Up.

    USA is all immigrants, especially college town in NY

    Who is paying to arrest house feed, jail medical, ect????

    1. Shaking my head

      Your comment shows your ignorance and the fact that you did not read previous comments where this ‘free for all’ idea was already addressed.

      1. Adam P. suny

        That is your opinion, take it with to the next election where You and all are free to vote.
        Many voters will support fully legal all drugs. Really a waste of taxpayer resources to arrest and jail citizens for smoking weed, heroin, coke or the other drugs.

  10. Forever Jung

    The Ulster County psychiatrist will be called by the prosecutor and a psychiatrist will be called by the defense when this case comes to trial. That’s because medicine is a science. Let the newspaper report that?

  11. Penny Decker

    We need balance with regard to immigration and I think this story indicates where we should and do draw the line. We all have to obey the laws or be ready to suffer consequences. Any would be permanent residents or citizens should have to do no less, especially if they arrived and stayed illegally to begin with.

    1. Adam P. suny

      The world is getting smaller, USA involved everywhere. Their are really no borders in this modern era. As the world govt takes control, slowly but surely their will be no borders.

      Will their be borders 100 years from today?

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