February 21, 2013 by Noel Pangilinan
ON A typically cold February morning, some 200 people huddled together at the entrance of the bridge to Ellis Island in Liberty State Park for a vigil to protest the detention of immigrants.
“It was a fitting place to gather, in front of the Statue of Liberty, the symbol of welcoming immigrants,” Kathy O’Leary of Pax Christi New Jersey said.
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.
“We now have close to 2,500 people incarcerated for immigration violations in New Jersey alone,” O’Leary, said.
Marisol Conde Hernandez of the New Jersey DREAM Act Coalition (NJDAC) said detaining immigrants suspected of being undocumented is too harsh a punishment.
“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.
Immigration rights advocates contend that illegal immigration is not a crime. “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.”
The recent push by President Obama and the Senate for a new immigration reform bill has brought optimism to the immigrant community. O’Leary, however, said that although she welcomes the renewed initiative, immigrant rights groups would want to make sure that immigration detention will not be left out of the conversation. “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 said.
“Even legal immigrants are being arrested and detained and are facing deportation for minor infractions due to the 1996 repressive immigration laws,” O’Leary said.
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.
What immigrant rights groups are pushing for is a comprehensive immigration reform that includes how detention is used, O’Leary said. “We don’t believe that locking people up who pose no threat to society is a good use of our resources. We believe it’s immoral and unjust.”
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 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.
For Ellis Island, though, holding the vigil against immigration detention right across the river from where it is located is doubly symbolic. At some point in its history, Ellis Island has also served as a detention center for immigrants.