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City of Immigrants

The NYPD Is Arresting Homeless Migrants in Fare Evasion Crackdown

Without work authorization and being shunted around the city, migrants are ending up in the City's labyrinthine misdemeanor court system.

Junior Toussaint swipes through a turnstile on April 30, 2024. (Hell Gate)

At first, Kathleen Keene, a volunteer at a makeshift community-run warming center in the East Village, didn't think much of it when, earlier this year, a few migrants showed her the yellow or pink summons tickets they had received for fare evasion on the New York City subways. But when Keene began asking more migrants at the center if they had been receiving similar summonses, people began picking them out of their bags or pockets or telling her about friends who had tickets piling up, and it quickly became apparent that it was a much more widespread problem.

"They kept telling me about more and more people who they knew had been ticketed, and were unsure of what to do about it," Keene said.

As the NYPD continues to crack down on fare evasion, migrants told Hell Gate that they have been singled out by the NYPD to receive tickets, even as other people at the fare gates at the same time who were not paying for their subway ride were not getting stopped by officers.

These types of stops and the sometimes resulting arrest, while often leading to minor charges, can have serious consequences for people's ongoing immigration cases. Fare evasion can be considered a "crime involving moral turpitude," which could weigh negatively on immigration judges who are deciding a migrant's asylum case, whether they should receive a green card, or eventually, if they qualify for citizenship—and it can also lead to possible deportation. Anyone arrested by the NYPD is fingerprinted, which then goes into a national database that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has access to. New York City's "sanctuary city" policies have no impact on what ICE decides to do with this information, and low-level arrests by the NYPD have been used by ICE before to justify deportations, under both the Obama and Trump administrations.

All of this could be avoided, however, if the City helped migrants access reduced MetroCard fares while they're getting on their feet in the city. But while migrants do get some free MetroCards to go between shelters and appointments with the City, many of them are finding it difficult to access a subsidized fare program that provides low-income New Yorkers with reduced-cost MetroCards.

As migrants explained to Hell Gate, to them, when and why the NYPD will ticket them for fare evasion is confusing and arbitrary. Sometimes, police officers, seeing a shelter ID around a migrant's neck, will open up emergency gates or swipe them in. Other times, friendly New Yorkers will open the fare gates for them—only for an NYPD officer to then give them a ticket.

The latter is what happened on April 10 to Junior Toussaint, a migrant from Haiti, at the 7 train station at Main Street in Flushing, Queens. After someone had invited a group of migrants to their home for a home-cooked dinner, Toussaint found himself in a familiar situation at the subway station as he tried to get back to the massive migrant shelter at JFK—his MetroCard, which he'd saved up to put money on, had run out, so he waited for someone to either swipe him in or open the emergency gate for him. When he walked in with other people through a gate that had been opened by a passerby, a group of NYPD officers quickly selected him out of the group and apprehended him. 

"I didn't know why they picked me out, because everyone had just done the same thing," Toussaint told Hell Gate. Toussaint, who fled political and gang violence in Haiti, didn't want to break the law, he explained. But he also didn't understand when he was allowed to enter the subway without paying, and when he could face arrest for it. 

Toussaint holding proof of his DAT dismissal in Queens County Criminal Court. (Hell Gate)

Toussaint was handcuffed, taken in a car to a police precinct, and held for four hours, as officers searched his bags, had him take off his shirt, and then released him with a criminal summons for fare evasion, with a court date set for later in the month. He was given no explanation why he was taken to a precinct or forced to strip off his clothes. 

Toussaint was baffled as to what had just happened. "For something as small as not paying the fare, for them to take you for four hours, take off your clothes, not tell you anything, I didn't understand why," he said. Toussaint has been taking English classes in Harlem, and while his English is improving, he still wasn't able to communicate clearly with the officers. He had no idea what was expected of him when it came to dealing with his ticket. That's when he reached out to the volunteers from the warming center, which he had heard about from other migrants via WhatsApp. 

Over the past few weeks, Keene and other volunteers have been organizing trips for the migrants to courthouses and the Transit Adjudication Bureau, in order to fight or settle the tickets. Confusingly, some people have received civil summonses, and some have received criminal summonses—which is entirely at the discretion of police officers, and seemingly done at random. All of the tickets they've contested so far have been dismissed immediately, with judges citing the fact that officers didn't provide enough information on the ticket itself for it to be valid. 

Last Monday morning, Toussaint, who traveled from a shelter he had been moved to the previous weekend in Coney Island, and accompanied by a volunteer from the East Village warming center, went to Queens Criminal Court in Kew Gardens to contest his criminal summons. In the basement of the courthouse, he handed over his ticket to a clerk, and within thirty seconds, she handed it back over to him with a piece of paper now taped to it that read "DISMISSED."

Directed down the hall, Toussaint, with the help of the volunteer, handed in the ticket for his official disposition. The case, according to the form, had been dismissed because the ticket was "LEGALLY INSUFFICIENT."

Toussaint was free to go. Even then, however, he was confused about what had taken place, and how the City's administrative state had decided his fate.

"I'm happy but…." he trailed off, trying to describe the feeling, and ultimately just shrugged. 

If Toussaint had missed his court date, a warrant would have been issued for his arrest. Arrests can make you a priority for deportation by ICE, whose own priorities change depending on the president. Under Trump, arrests of undocumented individuals made them priorities for deportation. 

Every quarter, the NYPD must publish quarterly reports on how many criminal arrests it has made for fare evasion, and how many summonses it has handed out. Under Eric Adams, the NYPD has dramatically increased its policing of fare evasion—and those arrests have more than doubled between the last quarter of 2022 and 2023. (Data for the first quarter of 2024 has not yet been published.) 

A spokesperson for the Mayor's Office told Hell Gate that while the City provides MetroCards for migrants who must either travel to reapply for shelter or move to another shelter, as well as for migrant students, it doesn't hand out MetroCards for migrants who need to traverse the city for class, work, or immigration appointments. 

In a statement, a spokesperson for the NYPD said that it isn't targeting migrants for arrests, but that they're getting caught up in a larger crackdown on fare evasion. "The NYPD focused its efforts where quality-of-life concerns and complaints of violence were reported and, in 2023, our officers affected 132 percent more fare evasion arrests and issued a combined 43 percent more civil TAB and criminal court summonses in the subway system for fare evasion," the spokesperson wrote in an email to Hell Gate. 

Other migrants have found themselves wrapped up in the court system for low-level offenses. Barry, a migrant from Guinea, was resting in a park last month, because he said he had a headache. But two NYPD officers approached him, and ticketed him for being near a playground without a child.

"I said I didn't know it was against the law, and they said I could just explain that to the court," Barry told Hell Gate.

According to Barry, other migrants had told him to skip the court date—a lot of them had received similar desk appearance tickets for fare evasion and other low-level charges, and rumors had spread through WhatsApp that if you went to court, you could be deported right there and then. "They're all scared to go to court," Barry said, referring to the many people he knew in the shelter system who had already missed their court dates.

A warming center volunteer had explained to Barry, however, that ignoring the ticket would do more harm than going to court, and would lead to his case remaining in the system. Accompanied by volunteers, he had his charges dropped when he showed up to court.

The City could do a lot more to get MetroCards into the hands of migrants. For just over a year, Queens Assemblymember Zohran Mamdani has been holding clinics at his district office in Astoria to help migrants sign up for reduced-fare MetroCards under the City's Fair Fares program—but he told Hell Gate that he has run into delays and roadblocks from the Adams administration. According to Mamdani, his office has submitted 860 Fair Fares applications, but only 250 have been processed. 

"And this is just one office that took it upon itself to do a clinic, because of the City's incompetence," Mamdani said. "And even then, there's often too few appointment windows being offered by the City to help everyone who wants an appointment."

He decried the NYPD's ticketing and arrests of people who aren't yet authorized to work in the United States. "How can we expect people to get on their feet and build the life they're hoping for without giving them the ability to move across the city?" Mamdani said. 

Keene, the volunteer in the East Village, is currently coordinating assistance for 15 migrants who have received fare evasion tickets, and is also putting together a guide to help migrants find their way through the labyrinthine court system. "Everybody's telling me they have friends with tickets, and it's easier to help them guide each other at this point," she said. 

For Toussaint, who just got his work permit this week, he worried about how close he came to having his dream derailed by the arrest. Already, he's had to move among three different shelters—first Randall's Island, then JFK, and now one in Coney Island, where he had his phone stolen last weekend. While trying to do everything right, he's finding his time in New York to be filled with possible peril. 

"America is the land of opportunity, right?" he said. "But if they make it impossible to get to that opportunity, if you can't just get to work? That's a false promise."

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