The current immigrant detention system in the United States is deeply flawed, and New Jersey's newest detention facility offers proof that federal reforms are falling short, immigration advocates said Friday at a conference on the issue.
A report by a coalition of immigration rights groups and New York University's law school focused on conditions at an immigration detention facility in Essex County as emblematic of problems with immigration detention system nationwide.
The report finds that despite the emphasis by President Barack Obama's administration on reforming the civil detention system, facilities like the one in Essex County fail to meet several national detention standards for immigrants, issued in 2008 and 2011 by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which cover everything from access to attorneys to recreation and health care.
"We feel this is only the tip of the iceberg of what's occurring," said Alina Das, co-director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at NYU's law school, who worked on the report. "We're very concerned about the conditions in New Jersey."
In New Jersey, the report's authors said they received more than 200 detainee grievances from the newly expanded detention facility at the Essex County Correctional Facility and nearby, privately operated Delaney Hall. Arguing that the facilities do not fully comply with ICE standards, the report documents problems with everything from access to legal assistance and worship services to adequate health care, food and other basic services for detainees.
The concern, Das said, is that federal immigration authorities have touted the new agreement between ICE and Essex County to expand detention bed space in the New York metropolitan area, as well as a new facility opened this month in Karnes City, Texas, as more humane, reform-minded facilities.
"Whatever Delaney Hall is, it's not a model detention facility," Das said.
ICE Spokesman Harold Ort said the agency has made "tremendous strides" toward reforming the immigration detention system, including the hiring of more than 40 detention services managers to increase oversight at detention facilities and conduct inspections and regular visits. The agency has also reduced the overall number of detention facilities from 370 to 255 nationwide, Ort said, and is committed to a closer working relationship with non-governmental groups to improve detainee treatment, as well was efficiency and oversight at detention facilities.
Alfaro Ortiz, the director of the Essex County Correctional Facility, disputed the report's findings and said it was part of an ongoing campaign to discredit his facility. The county signed a new agreement with ICE in 2011 to increase the number of immigration detainees in the Essex jail and an adjoining privately run facility from about 500 to 1,250.
Ortiz insists the Essex facilities provide safe, humane and decent accommodations that provide closer access for detainees to family members and immigration lawyers. The jail is accredited by the National Commission for Correctional Health Care and has earned a 100 percent rating from the New Jersey Department of Corrections for the past four years, Ortiz added.
"We look forward to working with ICE to provide the detainees with the best service possible," Ortiz said.
The conference on immigration detention, held at the Newark campus of Rutgers University, focused on eliminating mandatory detention altogether.
Immigrant under mandatory detention are classified as civil and not criminal detainees, and advocates have long argued that the majority are low-risk individuals who do not need to be detained in order to comply with deportation orders or court-related obligations.
Judy Rabinovitz, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union Immigrants' Rights Project who spoke at Friday's conference, said much of the huge expansion in immigrant detention facilities was largely unnecessary, as the majority of immigrant detainees pose neither a danger nor a flight risk.
"A fundamental shift is needed in how we look at detention, and to see detention as a last resort," she said.
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