As Hundreds Freed from Immigration Detention, Criticism Mounts

Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, speaks during a vigil against immigration detention at Liberty State Park. (Photo by Noel Pangilinan/ImmigraNation)

News this week that ICE will release hundreds of immigrants from detention centers to save money in anticipation of the looming “sequestration cuts” should be welcomed news for the 200 supporters who turned out for the fourth annual vigil against immigration detention on February 13 at Liberty State Park in N.J.

In an article on the vigil, ImmigraNation‘s Noel Pangilinan provided data on the number of immigrants in detention centers, one of the circumstances that advocates want to underscore. According to Kathy O’Leary of Pax Christi New Jersey, a Catholic peace group, almost 2,500 immigrants currently reside in detention centers “in New Jersey alone.”

Immigrant rights advocates have expressed concern over the growing reliance of the U.S. government on mass detention for immigration enforcement. From just 18 detention facilities with an average daily population of 54 in 1981, these numbers ballooned to at least 204 holding centers with an average daily population of 32,095 by 2011.

Six of these detention centers are located in New Jersey and two are in New York. One New Jersey center, the Hudson County Correctional Facility in Kearny, is listed among the 10 worst immigrant detention centers in the United States.

The American Civil Liberties Union said that in 2011 alone, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrested and detained an all-time high 429,000 immigrants all over the United States.

Kathy O’Leary, coordinator for Pax Christi New Jersey. (Photo by Noel Pangilinan/ImmigraNation)

While glad about the new dialogue on immigration reform, O’Leary did not take well to the language being used, saying, “What we’re hearing right now is an emphasis on enforcement, which translates to more people behind bars and that’s the wrong direction.”

She points to even legal immigrants being arrested and facing deportation for minor infractions, attributing this to the “1996 repressive immigration laws.”

She was referring to the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) and the Illegal Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), which subject lawful permanent residents convicted of an aggravated felony to mandatory detention and deportation.

“Until we have a repeal of those laws, and until we have less of an emphasis on immigration enforcements and on detention, we’re still going to see large numbers of people locked up for civil offense,” O’Leary, who is also the vice president of the advocacy group IRATE and First Friends, said.

Demonstrators, like Marisol Conde Hernandez of the New Jersey DREAM Act Coalition, echoed the sense that detaining immigrants suspected of not having legal status is going overboard.

“For people who just overstayed their visas and got pulled over and were discovered to be here without the necessary documents, do they really deserve to be incarcerated and share the same cells with people who committed murder? Definitely not,” said Hernandez, whose father was arrested and detained at a county jail when she was in high school.

Advocates say that being undocumented is not a crime, a notion that even the head of the ICE supports.

“It is a civil violation for which immigrants go through a process to see whether they have a right to stay in the United States,” according to Detention Watch Network. Even ICE director John Morton said in a previous interview that “the immigration laws are civil in nature… if you enter the country on a visa and you overstay your visa, that is a civil but not a criminal offense.”

Furthermore, it’s not just a question of whether certain immigrants should be detained. It’s also of concern the circumstances facing those detained in the centers.

Hernandez of NJDAC, for her part, said there is a need for heightened public awareness about the condition in detention facilities. “What’s scary is no one really pays attention to what’s happening in detention centers, or how [a] detention center works.”

Immigrants locked up in these ICE facilities are denied their right to post bail. Detainees are not allowed sufficient access to the outside world, which effectively curtails their efforts to prepare for their legal cases. In most of these centers, detained immigrants do not enjoy basic medical care and are not provided with adequate nutrition and exercise. There have also been reports of physical and sexual abuses inside several detention facilities, according to Detention Watch Network.

“Immigrants in ICE custody are technically in civil detention, meaning that they are locked up to ensure that they show up for their hearings and comply with the court’s decision, not because of any crime,” Detention Watch Network said in its report.

“The punishment does not fit the crime,” O’Leary said, as she and the group that gathered that morning wrap up their vigil in front of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, both undying symbols of the United States’ welcoming immigrants.

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