Opinion: Don’t let ICE turn state and local facilities into immigrant detention centers

The Dignity not Detention Act would prohibit New York state and local government entities from contracting with ICE for immigrant detention.

Felipe Iñiguez, an immigrant from Ecuador, sits at a table at the Orange County Jail after being detained by ICE.

Felipe Iñiguez, an immigrant from Ecuador, sits at a table at the Orange County Jail after being detained by ICE. Alejandra Villa Loarca/Newsday RM via Getty Images

While the state is rightly focused on how to extend care and dignity to the thousands of asylum seekers who have arrived in New York over the last two years, hundreds of other immigrant New Yorkers are languishing unnecessarily and dangerously in immigration detention. Their plight deserves our equal concern and urgency, both in light of events that occurred at the start of the year, and because we have legislative solutions ready at hand.

In January, reports began to circulate of a new COVID-19 outbreak in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention at the Orange County Jail in Goshen, NY. COVID-19 outbreaks in detention are particularly concerning, as protecting oneself under such conditions is very difficult, if not impossible. Advocates and attorneys representing people held at the facility also shared with our offices that the video-teleconferencing technology meant to facilitate remote meetings with people at the Orange County Jail was, once again, not functional. Delays in attorney-client communications for people in ICE detention often result in fewer opportunities to prepare for hearings. This can lead to poorer outcomes in immigration court, or for cases to be delayed, meaning longer waits in detention. These types of delays are simply unacceptable, yet our offices have been receiving reports like this for several years.

This recent outbreak comes on the heels of a federal court decision that found ICE cannot avoid accountability for claims of illegal retaliation against  those detained at Orange County Jail who protested the abhorrent conditions and racist abuse from guards at the facility. Despite ICE’s attempt to claim that they had no oversight or authority over the conditions at the jail, a federal judge disagreed, noting ICE likely had “at least a realistic opportunity to prevent” the violations of these New Yorkers’ constitutional rights. The lawsuit will now proceed against both the jail and ICE. As the case goes into discovery, the county will incur additional expenses and ultimately could be liable for damages. Despite the court’s ruling, the Department of Homeland Security and ICE are continuing to claim that most of the plaintiffs in the Orange County Jail litigation do not have claims against the federal government. Their attempts to avoid accountability have only created more delay in this case and will lead to additional financial costs to the county, which must keep paying its legal fees while getting nowhere closer to a resolution to this litigation. The deplorable conditions that ICE and the Orange County Jail have allowed to fester not only harm immigrants in detention, but also have significant fiscal consequences for Orange County.

The fact that ICE contracts with local jails like the Orange County Jail and then tries to avoid accountability for the treatment of people held in that facility is just another reason that New York should stop allowing government entities to enter into such agreements in the first place. Our bill, the Dignity not Detention Act, would ban  state, county, and municipal governments from contracting with ICE for the purposes of immigration detention.

There is simply no good reason for these contracts. Immigrant detention is not intended to be punitive. It exists primarily to ensure that people return for their immigration court hearings. Yet, studies have also shown that 88% of immigrants come to court, and that number increases when the person is represented by an attorney. Clearly, immigrant detention is not necessary to ensure people show up for legal proceedings. To the contrary, as we saw in January at the Orange County Jail, the system of immigration detention reduces due process by making it more difficult for people to communicate with their attorneys and participate in building their cases. For some, the experience of detention even causes them to give up their rights in immigration court and face deportation rather than spend another moment behind bars.

Research also suggests that the more beds available to ICE, the more aggressive ICE will be in their enforcement policies, and the more vulnerable localities become to ICE raids, placing more community members behind bars. 

ICE detention destabilizes families and subjects the people in detention to horrible conditions and increased risk of illness. Last year, NPR obtained records from ICE detention centers across the country and uncovered egregious conditions and medical neglect. This news reporting offered great detail about Orange County Jail, particularly abusive treatment by guards as well as medical neglect that risked the life of a person detained there, resulting in his hospitalization. 

Other states, including New Jersey (S3361, A5207), Maryland (SB 478), California (SB 29, AB 103), Washington (SB 5497, HB1090) and Illinois (SB0667) have already taken action and passed legislation to limit ICE detention. New York needs to catch up, and no longer be complicit in the caging of people simply for not being born in this country. For those interested in learning more about our bill, please consider attending our workshop about it at tomorrow’s SOMOS Albany Conference: 10:45 a.m. in Meeting Room 4 at Empire State Plaza. Let’s pass The Dignity not Detention Act in 2024.

Julia Salazar is a state senator representing Bushwick, Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Cypress Hills, and East New York in Brooklyn and Ridgewood in Queens. She is the chair of the Senate Committee on Crime Victims, Crime and Correction. Karines Reyes is an Assembly member representing Parkchester and Castle Hill in the Bronx. She is the chair of the state Legislature’s Puerto Rican/Hispanic Task Force.

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