By Maibe Gonzalez Fuentes, FI2W contributor
Saidah Mohammed, an 18-year-old from Brooklyn, New York, hasn’t seen her boyfriend, Jaun Pierre, for over a year. He’s being detained while he awaits deportation to his native Jamaica, an island he hasn’t visited since his parents brought him to the U.S., settling in Brooklyn some 10 years ago.
Jaun, 19, has spent the past 11 months in immigration detention. Before that he spent months detained on a minor charge in New York City’s Rikers Island prison. It was while he was a prisoner at Rikers that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents caught Jaun. His lawyer advised him to plead guilty to charges stemming from a fight he was allegedly involved in without informing him that such a plea would set grounds for deportation. Now proceedings are underway to return Jaun to Jamaica, away from his parents, siblings, friends and Saidah. (*In response to a reader’s comment, this paragraph was edited for clarity.)
Saidah told her boyfriend’s story through tears at a press conference Tuesday in New York where advocates and religious groups launched a new campaign to end the presence of ICE at the city’s jails.
Advocates called on New York City’s government to pass legislation that would preclude ICE from accessing detainees’ place of birth information prior to conviction. A bill drafted by the groups and sponsored by Council Member Eric Gioia will be introduced in the City Council next week.
ICE increased its presence in jails and prisons after 2001 as part of a Homeland Security plan to improve cooperation between federal, state and local governments in detecting criminal foreigners. Last May, the Obama Administration announced an expansion of the program to local jails.
Correctional centers provide ICE with a list of foreign-born detainees, both legal and undocumented. Immigration agents then use this information to conduct interrogation and, in some cases, initiate repatriation proceedings.
Pro-immigrant groups and lawyers say that thousands of foreign-born people, including green card holders, have been subject to coercive and deceitful interrogations without any oversight or accountability.
Data provided by the Rikers Island prison to immigrant groups under the Freedom of Information Act shows that between 2004 and 2008, close to 13,000 foreign-born detainees were subject to deportation proceedings regardless of their immigration status or the type of crime they committed.
Gilliam Brigham, a spokeswoman for the immigration agency, defended the program in a response published by The New York Times: “By processing these criminal aliens for removal before they are released to the general public, ICE is enhancing public safety,” she said.
Advocates, however, are concerned about the impact that this practice has on families and communities.
“Each time a New Yorker is plucked out of Rikers and sent into the black hole of immigration detention, there is a New York City family left behind — (ICE is) leaving the deportees’ families abandoned in New York and dependent on our city’s strained social service system,” said the Rev. Giovanny Sanchez, senior minister of the Lutheran Church of the Holy Spirit in Brooklyn and a leader of the New Sanctuary Coalition. “It is not in our city’s interest to be complicit in a federal deportation policy hijacked by the politics of fear.”
Advocates also point out that holding foreign-born people at local prisons until immigration agents come to interrogate them drives up expenses for local governments. Detention is costly and governments have to compensate those who have been held illegally, they say.
“Prisons hold foreign-born detainees until ICE agents come. That is supposed to take 48 hours, but we know that it often takes weeks or months (…) People have the right to be compensated for the time they have been denied freedom, and that money comes from taxpayers’ pockets,” explained Alisa Wellek, a member of the New York University Immigration Rights Clinic.
Wellek told the story of one client, a man from Barbados to whom the city paid $145,000 for approximately 45 days of illegal detention at Rikers Island.
Another concern is the effect that this practice may have on public safety. “This practice is dangerous because immigrants fear enforcement agencies, and that makes communities very unsafe,” said Javier Valdes, deputy director of the group Make the Road New York.
Valdes’ concerns are shared by Cecilia Gaston, the executive director of the Domestic Violence Intervention Program, an organization that serves immigrant women who have been abused by their spouses. Gaston said that many of her clients don’t call the police to denounce their attackers because they fear immigration-related repercussions. She also said that many families have been destabilized after a family member was deported.