When ProPublica reporter Hannah Dreier was in a New York immigration court on April 5, she was there to cover the news, not become it. But an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) attorney twice objected to her presence, derailing a deportation hearing into a mini-trial over a reporter’s right to take notes at an open courtroom.
Dreier was covering a high profile deportation case of Henry, a teenager who helped the police and FBI arrest his fellow gang members on Long Island. While the courtroom was not closed, the judge allowed Henry to determine who could be present due to the sensitivity of the case. He had approved Dreier, who was the only reporter in court that day.
“The ICE attorney twice raised objections to the presence of a ProPublica reporter in court, and to the reporter taking notes that might be published. Mulligan dismissed this objection, citing Henry’s right to waive his own privacy protections,” Dreier wrote in her April 6 article about Henry’s case.
The ICE attorney focused attention on Dreier and a magazine article she had written earlier in the week, which had been entered into evidence. Dreier said that the lawyer kept saying that she wanted to talk about the article, and that the reporter was in the room, at which point everyone would look at her.
“I’ve never had that happen, where the judge, lawyers, everyone was looking at me while I was observing court proceedings,” Dreier told Freedom of the Press Foundation.
When the court returned from a break, Dreier said the ICE attorney raised an issue with the judge regarding her laptop, which was closed in her bag while she took notes by hand on a notepad.
“[The ICE attorney] found out from someone else in the courtroom that my laptop was closed but not powered down,” Dreier said. “I wasn’t recording, it was just closed in my bag, but it became this mini trial about me and my laptop—it was such a circus.”
The judge quickly shot the ICE attorney’s objection down and moved on, but the attorney soon objected again, this time taking issue with Dreier’s handwritten notes.
“She tried to get me tossed out again towards the end, and she pointed out that ‘those notes might be published,’ which is the point of taking notes if you’re a journalist,” she said. “But the judge didn’t throw me out, and instead said that it was Henry’s choice. Henry seemed as baffled as the rest of us. It was just a bizarre situation.”
Dreier said that there is a continuum of enforcement of media rules in courtrooms—sometimes reporters are allowed to take notes on their laptops, and other times, often for more sensitive cases, reporters may not have a recorder or telephone. Although she noted that often ICE courtrooms make reporting a bit more difficult, she had never seen anything like this.
Although she now can laugh the incident off, Dreier was initially worried that the attention would impact the outcome of Henry’s case.
“I’ve covered all sorts of trials, immigration court, federal proceedings, and local proceedings. I’ve spent days and weeks sitting in courtrooms writing down what’s going on, and I’ve never before been the subject of the proceedings,” she said. “I was worried it would shift the outcome, or annoy the judge, or get me kicked out. I was worried I wouldn’t get to come back for his next hearing.”
This isn’t the first time ICE has interfered with journalists doing their jobs. In February 2017, East Bay Express reporter Darwin BondGraham was pressured to leave a federal immigration courtroom that was open to the public.
An ICE attorney had ordered that BondGraham state whether or not he was with the press. BondGraham refused to answer questions about his work since any member of the public, reporter not, had the right to observe the proceedings. Court guards then demanded his identification, and accompanied him into courtrooms, telling judges that they were concerned about his behavior. As a result, Darwin said that he was even ordered out of a master calendar hearing.
“This is really concerning because public scrutiny ensures that the government acts fairly and lawfully and is held accountable for its actions,” said Sarah Matthews, Staff Attorney at Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “If a court requires a journalist to leave a deportation hearing without making specific findings to justify this exclusion it could violate the First Amendment right to attend these hearings, which have historically been open to the public.”
BondGraham noted that this was just incident of many in which ICE tried to interfere with his work. “For several months, I've been observing the immigration court in San Francisco. Mostly I've sat in on bond hearings and "removals," more commonly known as deportations. The entire time, ICE attorneys and private security guards have been attempting to limit my access.”
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Michael Risher, counsel at the ACLU, helped BondGraham push back after this incident. He said thinks that ICE has a special obligation to be transparent, given that the government exercises some if its biggest, greatest powers against people in deportation hearings. “We the people need to be able to see what’s happening, if it’s fair and appropriate, and how the government is conducting itself. We shouldn’t have secret immigration courts.”
BondGraham said that “reporters are still having trouble getting into immigration courtrooms, and there's still hostility from some of ICE's attorneys, as well as the private security officers who screen those trying to attend court.”
Beyond limiting reporters’ access, ICE may even deport an immigration journalist who is often critical of law enforcement. Manuel Duran, a Memphis reporter and owner of the Spanish-language paper Memphis Noticias, was arrested this month while documenting immigration protests. He remains in ICE custody and could be deported to El Salvador, and his lawyers say this is retaliation for his reporting.
Unlike BondGraham, Dreier was not removed from court, and unlike Duran, she never faced charges or risk of deportation in retaliation for her work. She was able to observe Henry’s deportation hearing. But ICE’s continued hostility towards journalists covering deportation hearings is deeply troubling, particularly when it interferes with their ability to do their jobs.