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Know Your Rights
Source: The New York Times
Subject: Immigration
Type: Media Coverage

Immigration Officials Often Detain Foreign-Born Rikers Inmates for Deportation

In a city with a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to immigration status, it may come as a surprise to many that the New York Department of Correction routinely gives a list of foreign-born inmates at Rikers Island to immigration authorities, who use it to question, detain and try to deport thousands of them.

At least 13,000 Rikers inmates have been placed in deportation proceedings since 2004 through this practice, a coalition of immigrant advocacy groups has learned from data obtained in a Freedom of Information Act request. The groups, and their lawyers at the Immigrant Justice Clinic of Cardozo School of Law, will discuss the findings and start a protest campaign Tuesday morning at Judson Memorial Church in Lower Manhattan.

“This is a huge program with enormous consequences for New Yorkers,” said Nancy Morawetz, a professor at New York University School of Law, who helped one of the groups file for the information from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “The experience in New York is a warning about what we can expect nationally as ICE expands its jail-based programs around the country.”

According to information released in response to the request, agents from the federal immigration enforcement agency, typically in plain clothes and under no requirement to provide interpreters, question about 4,000 inmates a year about their immigration status, out of about 105,000 people jailed annually at Rikers. Immigration authorities put a hold, or “detainer,” on roughly 3,200.

Then, instead of being released when they finish their terms — or even if criminal charges against them are dismissed — these inmates are sent to immigration detention centers, often in Texas or Louisiana, far from legal services and relatives, Professor Morawetz said.

The advocacy groups, which include the New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City, Make the Road New York and the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights, contend that this process is “leaving the deportees’ families abandoned in New York and dependent on our city’s strained social service system.” The groups plan to ask the City Council to refuse federal agents access to pretrial detainees.

Gilliam Brigham, a spokeswoman for the immigration agency, defended the program.

“By processing these criminal aliens for removal before they are released to the general public, ICE is enhancing public safety,” she said.

The Rikers effort, she added, is “one element of ICE’s comprehensive strategy to build cooperative relationships with local law enforcement agencies.”

Stephen J. Morello, a spokesman for the Department of Correction, said the department provides federal immigration officers, who have free office space at Rikers, a list of newly admitted foreign-born inmates. But the information — including country of birth, if a detainee supplies it — is publicly available on the department’s Web site, he said, and if federal agents decide they want to visit a foreign-born detainee, the department cooperates.

After hearing advocates’ concerns that inmates were being inadequately notified of the nature of the visits and their right to decline them or to have legal representation, the department agreed in June to refine the current notification form, provide it in several languages and train correction officers about the issue, Mr. Morello added.

“The department does not provide ICE information about the inmate’s immigration status, since under the mayor’s executive order, city agencies are prohibited from asking about immigration status,” he said. “We do not do ICE’s job. We are not an extension of ICE.”

Peter L. Markowitz, director of the Immigrant Justice Center at Cardozo, praised the department for “moving in the right direction.” But he said immigration agents have sometimes used “coercive and deceitful tactics” in questioning foreign-born pretrial detainees, effectively denying them their constitutional rights to be presumed innocent, to remain silent and to be represented by a lawyer. These tactics affect foreign-born United States citizens as well as unauthorized immigrants and legal residents subject to deportation, he said.

The Rikers program was a precursor to a larger federal effort to identify and deport illegal immigrants held in local jails. That effort, known as Secure Communities, was begun under President George W. Bush and is being vastly expanded by the Obama administration, which hopes to establish a more computerized program nationwide by late 2012, when it is projected to cost about $1 billion a year.

Now operating in about 70 counties, it allows local officials to check fingerprints taken at jails with federal immigration authorities.

“All these systems are designed to sweep in people and then sort it out while they’re in detention in Texas without access to lawyers,” Professor Morawetz said. One result, she added, has been the mistaken deportation of United States citizens and another has been the deaths in detention of longtime New Yorkers with little or no criminal record.

“The statistics show that these are not isolated cases,” she said, “but rather a result of a systematic program that threatens all foreign nationals.”