Immigration detention is once again revealing fatal flaws, reaffirming the need to not only superficially reform the system as has been promised by the Obama administration, but completely overhaul it by reducing reliance on a penal system of punishment. As a New York Times opinion piece stated,
Americans have long known that the government has been running secretive immigration prisons into which detainees have frequently disappeared…..what we did not know, until a recent article in The Times by Nina Bernstein, was how strenuously the government has tried to cover up those failings.
Yesterday, reports came in of an ongoing hunger strike at Varick Federal Detention Facility in downtown New York, counteracted by immigration agents in riot gear who used pepper sprays and beat detainees.
A Jamaican detainee in one dorm said “all hell broke loose” after about 100 inmates refused to go to the mess hall on Tuesday morning and gave guards a flier declaring they were on a hunger strike to protest detention policies and practices. The detainee, who asked that his name not be published for fear of retaliation, said a SWAT team used pepper spray and “beat up” some detainees, took many to segregation cells as punishment and transferred about 17 to immigration jails in other states.
A detention center that sees 11,000 undocumented immigrants, asylum seekers, and legal permanent residents with convictions pass through every year, Varick has been in the news recently as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced they will be shutting it down and transferring detainees to a county jail in Hudson County, Jersey. An ICE press release stated,
As part of its major overhaul of the detention system, ICE will suspend operations at the Varick Facility….a commitment to prioritizing health, safety, and uniformity among facilites.
No doubt Varick has had its share of problems. A petition sent by a 100 men from Varick talking of constant transfers to remote locations and lack of access to lawyers spurred an investigation by the New York City Bar Association which eventually led them to start a volunteer lawyers program for the facility. But many advocates and detainees alike feel that ICE has decided to shift responsibilities to other facilities rather than fix conditions at Varick, especially given the focus on misconduct in the facility in recent times. Many are worried that closing Varick would negatively impact detainees’ due process rights, including lack of access to both attorneys and families in Hudson because of the long distance from New York City and issues around visitation hours. Still others feel that the move comes to avoid all of those protests that have been happening outside of Varick lately. Activists have been protesting the deportation of Jean Montrevil, housed in Varick, that has led to traffic stops and multiple arrests outside the center. The New York Times reports,
Nancy Morawetz, a professor at the New York University School of Law and director of its Immigrant Rights Clinic, said, “There is probably no detainee at Varick Street who, despite the problems at Varick, wouldn’t prefer to be at Varick. This is really just moving away the problems where they’re not going to be seen.”
Senator Charles Schumer has written a letter urging that Varick stay open.
“They didn’t have a concept of New York — most people New York don’t have cars, whether they be lawyers or immigrant families, ” he said, noting that the agency had not consulted with him or any immigrant groups.
ICE has countered that at Hudson, detainees will have access to outdoor recreation space. But the jail is just a step up from Varick and is required to to treat immigration detainees the same as its criminal inmates, even though they have committed no crime.
The general mess around Varick is showing not only the challenges around reforming the detention system, but also the crucial need for legally enforceable standards for immigration detention, so that agencies can be held accountable, and the need for humane alternatives to immigration detention that ensures moving away from a reliance on a penal, punishment oriented system, neither of which are being addressed by the reforms. Take action now.
Update: The transfer of detainees from Varick to Hudson County has happened as planned but its consequences, as many advocates and detainees have predicted, have made conditions worse for detainees. From the New York Times.
Detainees have sent appeals for help to the American Bar Association and have threatened a hunger strike. They cite exorbitant telephone costs as their central grievance, but also complain of poor health care, confiscation of legal documents and mistreatment by guards at the jail, the Hudson County Correctional Center in Kearny….Officials of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the federal agency that pays jails to house detainees, have said improvements are in the works. But for detainees shifted from the New York jail, the Varick Federal Detention Facility, the possibilities for communication with the outside world have shrunk.
Photo courtesy of ICE.