Varick Is Closing, But That’s Not The Answer to Our Broken Detention System

By Julianne Hing Feb 25, 2010

The Varick Federal Detention Facility is days away from closure, and this should be good news. But immigration advocates and activists gathered today in New York City to demand that ICE evaluate policies that mandate that immigrants must be held in detention without due process. The gathering coincided with the kickoff of a new campaign, "Dignity, Not Detention," organized by Detention Watch Network, a national coalition of immigrant defense groups. The Varick street center is being closed partially because of public pressure–Varick has a well-documented track record of detainee abuse and fatal medical negligence. Just yesterday, the NYCLU released a report detailing detainees’ experiences there. The NYCLU white paper examines hundreds of Varick detainees’ grievances: a man suffered from an abscessed tooth, but by the time he was granted access to a dentist, the infection had spread to seven teeth. Root canals were recommended, but treatment was denied. Sixteen months later, the man still hasn’t gotten the medical attention he needs. Another man with prostate cancer pleaded for a doctor’s care, but was swiftly deported before he was allowed to make an appointment. “Do I have to die first before I see a doctor?” wrote one Varick detainee. And so one would think now would be the time for celebration. But according to Alina Das, a supervising attorney at the NYU Law School Immigrant Rights Clinic, immigrants at Varick are being shuttled to the Hudson County Jail in New Jersey, a facility that has its own history of detainee abuse. Hudson County Jail, like many detention facilities, has no standards governing detainees’ access to legal services, recreation or visitation. The conditions at Varick Detention Center were awful, but by no means anomalous in the detention system, and shutting down one facility doesn’t address the broader system. "ICE and DHS [the Department of Homeland Security] should be focused not on where people are detained but why they’re detained at all," said Das. "Transferring people to Hudson County Jail is just transferring them from one cage to another." Das and other advocates contend that things don’t have to be this way. Immigrants who are navigating the deportation, appeals and asylum process don’t need to be warehoused in degrading, inhumane conditions. Many immigration detainees are actually long-time U.S. residents who pose no flight risk or danger to the community. "It’s such a waste and an assault on the dignity of detainees and their families who are waiting to transfer people further away to facilities that have suffered similar problems," said Das. Immigrant advocates feel strongly that release and other alternatives to incarceration should be the focus of ICE’s efforts. Barring that, groups like the NYCLU want ICE to adopt actual standards to govern and enforce across all detention centers to ensure people’s minimum safety. But in separate meetings with New York ICE Field Director Christopher Shanahan and ICE Assistant Secretary John Morton, both officials turned down groups who offered to conduct a comprehensive review for ICE to assess whether some detainees could be released to their families. "This isn’t a question of whether or not we will detain people," Morton said in an interview with the National Law Journal. "We will detain people, and we will detain them on a grand scale. It’s a necessary power." In a system that houses more than 370,000 people a year, costs taxpayers $1.7 billion annually, and is notorious for abuse and neglect and trampling on the rights and dignity of families, Morton is on the wrong side of the issue. Advocates want the Obama administration to wake up now. How many more people have to die in immigration detention before they institute real reform?