This article is based on a story Catalina Jaramillo wrote for El Diario/La Prensa.
NEW YORK—In an overcrowded hearing room, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn along with the Council’s Immigration Committee Chair, Daniel Dromm and the Fire and Criminal Justice Services Chair, Elizabeth Crowley, held an oversight hearing to better understand the relationship between the New York City Department of Corrections (DOC) and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) regarding undocumented immigrants sent to the Rikers Island jail.
Quinn started the hearing by saying that the council understands that the goal of the relationship is based on public safety and that obviously they don’t want to put New York City residents at risk, but that many concerns have been raised over the way DOC works with ICE, going “far beyond its actual work.”
Quinn was followed by testimony from Commissioner of Corrections Dora B. Schriro, and then the discussion began in earnest.
Answering Quinn’s questions, Schriro stated, among other things, that even though ICE officers have been at Rikers for almost 20 years, there was no formal agreement between ICE and DOC. Schriro said that the DOC adheres to Executive Order 41, issued by Mayor Bloomberg in 2003, which ensures that city workers keep immigrants’ immigration status confidential.
“Our understanding of Executive Order 41, [is that] we have an obligation to cooperate in these matters so we continue to do so,” Schriro said.
“So that means the Mayor could change the relationship [with ICE] or end it, right?” said Quinn. “Clearly if a mayoral action stated this relationship, a mayoral action could end or limit it, which I think is much more the focus of discussion I would like to have,” she added.
Quinn said she wanted to make this clear because officials of the Bloomberg administration had said in private conversations with members of the council that the collaboration with ICE was not optional, but in meetings with ICE they were told the opposite.
“So, for the record,” Quinn said. “The relationship DOC has with ICE is up to the Department of Correction, up to the mayor, up to the City of New York, and if there was an effort to narrow that, that was within our power.”
Andrew Friedman, co-executive director of Make the Road by Walking commented in an aside, that the details of the relationship between ICE and DOC was the most important point to clarify.
“Nobody has ever said that they [DOC] need to give free space to federal immigration agents at Rikers, and the commissioner today again said she didn’t know how they even got there, she knows there’s no authority that requires them to be there,” Friedman said.
A new study released Tuesday by Justice Strategies, looking at inmates facing drug charges, shows that those accused of lesser crimes at Rikers were actually more likely to be deported than those charged with felonies. This is the case, despite ICE statements that its priority is to deport serious criminals.
Asked for a comment, Jason Post, a city spokesperson said: “The majority of defendants which ICE holds have been convicted of prior crimes and were in Rikers charged with new felonies.”
Friedman questioned why the Bloomberg administration is spending $50 million dollars every year, according to the Justice Strategies study in a collaboration that is not required, and that goes against Mayor Bloomberg’s advocacy of immigration reform.
“It’s hard for me to reconcile the mayor’s actions locally and nationally, regarding immigration,” Councilwoman Melissa Mark Viverito said in the hearing.
In the last fiscal year ICE detained nearly 3,200 Rikers inmates.
Commissioner Schriro said the only way ICE agents could talk with inmates was with their consent. She explained they had to sign a form, available in eight languages, saying they agreed and if they didn’t want to talk; they didn’t have to sign the form. According to her numbers, 36% of the inmates signed the form.
Councilman Jumaane D. Williams asked Schriro if that form established clearly that talking with an ICE agent could result in deportation. Schriro answered yes. Williams asked her to read the form. The commissioner read it. After doing so, Williams complained the form was not clear enough.
“It is what it is,” said the commissioner.
Councilmember Ydanis Rodríguez jumped in and asked if prisoners had an immigration lawyer available. The commissioner said no. Rodríguez said that was unbelievable.
“Your relationship with ICE is xenophobic,” commented Councilmember Charles Barron. “It’s irresponsible,” he added.
According to Friedman the problem is that a lot of inmates don’t read the form before signing it.
“People are confused, they are alone, and they don’t have attorneys. First of all, people don’t read every form they’re put in front of and not everyone in Rikers Island knows how to read,” Friedman said.
The hearing, which lasted more than five hours, came amid confusion and worry about increased collaboration between local police departments and ICE, due to New York’s participation in the federal Secure Communities Program.
ICE was invited, but didn’t attend.