Detention Reform: Jailed and Forgotten?

November 11, 2009

A new report released by New York’s City Bar Justice Center opens a window not only to the problems of immigrants being held in the Varick Federal Detention Center, but also profiles the problems rampant throughout the US immigration system.  The report describes the Know Your Rights Project – a joint effort of the City Bar Justice Center, the Legal Aid Society and the American Immigration Lawyers’ Association NYC Chapter Pro Bono Committee.  158 interviews were conducted from December 2008 to July 2009, by pro bono attorneys providing legal counsel to immigrants detained at Varick Federal Detention Center.

While sometimes stark and startling, the results reported in the City Bar Justice’s publication are not an isolated circumstance, but rather a case study of an all too common phenomenon.  As Amnesty International has reported on and advocated against for several years, and even the United States Council on Foreign Relations Task Force on US Immigration Policy has admitted, the United States immigration system is not merely flawed—it is broken.

The report presents compiled findings and identifies trends among the 158 people interviewed.  Notably among the results are that 39.2% of the detainees that the Project interviewed had possible claims for relief from removal—that they could appeal their cases and be released from detention and not deported.

However, at the same time, the report states that almost none of the detained immigrants interviewed had any knowledge of the legal provisions under which they may be able to present their claims for relief from removal.  While a legal library is available at Varick, most immigrants do not have adequate access to the facility, nor are they able to adequately navigate the intricate legal web in which they are caught in order to effectively represent their case on a pro se basis  (without a lawyer).  Only 10% of the immigrants interviewed qualified for a bond under the law as it is currently written, and only 1% were able to pay their bonds.  Often immigrants are detained much longer than necessary, with detention terms stretching on for weeks, months, even years.

The New York Times article “Immigrant Jail Tests U.S. View of Legal Access,” by Nina Burnstein run on November 1, 2009, chronicling the history of and conditions in the Varick Facility.  According to the article, Varick is run by an Alaska Native Corporation, Ahtna.  It profiles individual cases of immigrants detained at Varick, and describes some of their trials and tribulations as they attempt to navigate the legal and political quagmire in which they find themselves.  It shows a personal side of the story the NYC Know Your Rights Project report.

The findings of this report and of the recent New York Times article do not represent isolated events at Varick.  Amnesty International’s 2009 report, Jailed Without Justice:  Immigration Detention in the USA  explains the widespread flaws in the US immigration detention system and calls for a number of key policy recommendations.  In February 2009, the US Council on Foreign Relations Task Force on Immigration Policy released a publication chronicling similar problems in the immigration system and made recommendations to Congress for comprehensive immigration reform, closely mirroring the Amnesty International Report regarding recommendations on immigration detention.  Among them are similar recommendations made in the NYC Know Your Rights Project report, including providing alternatives to detention, such as affordable bonds, reporting requirements, or electronic monitoring ankle bracelets; and the need to make legal council available to every immigrant in custody.

As case studies such as Varick continue to emerge they underscore the fact that the United States is in dire need for detention reform.  Legislation is beginning to hit the floor, including the Immigration Oversight and Fairness Act (HR 1215)  and Robert Menendez’s two bills in the Senate, the Protect Citizens and Residents from Unlawful Detention Act (S.1549) and the Strong STANDARDS Act (S.1550).   However, with bigger, louder debates raging around health care, the very real danger exists that issue of immigration—like many immigrants to the US—will be pushed aside, locked in a veritable political and legislative jail to be dealt with at an undetermined date in the future.

Joanna B. Hurlburt, AIUSA Refugee and Migrant Rights, contributed to this post.