Op-Ed: Fight Abuses in Private Immigration Detention Centers

New York City Council Member Daniel Dromm represents the 25th District in Queens. According to Dromm, prisoners at privately operated detention centers, like the one in Queens, are often subject to abuse. Photo courtesy of the New York City Council.

On Thursday, the Center for New York City Affairs is hosting The Detention Dilemma, a lecture event on the state of privately operated prisons, which are often used to detain undocumented immigrants.

City Council Member Daniel Dromm (D-25) is chair of the Committee on Immigration on the New York City Council. Last December, Dromm and New York City Public Advocate Bill de Blasio urged the federal government to probe a privately-operated detention center in Jamaica, Queens, where 175 immigrant detainees held a hunger strike in 2004 to protest what they said were unjust conditions.

As a nation we have accepted the privatization of prisons. Stories of severe prisoner abuse surface and disappear without a ripple because, shamefully, many of us are unconcerned about what happens to prisoners after imprisonment. We think even less about the 31,000 individuals imprisoned in the United States without committing a crime, people who are treated as criminals for doing little more than crossing a border without proper documentation. In the last year there have been stunning allegations that some individuals held in immigration detention centers are being abused both physically and sexually.

Residents of New York City should pay particularly close attention to the allegations of abuse, as our city is home to a detention center run by the GEO Group (formerly Wackenhut), a company in Jamaica, Queens, that the federal government pays to run criminal and immigration detention facilities across the nation. Companies like the GEO Group are rarely held accountable for abusing immigrant detainees because the victims are usually deported before having the opportunity to bring a formal complaint. Making matters worse, detention centers, like the one in Jamaica, Queens, violate both the letter and the spirit of federal law by minimizing detainee access to attorneys.

Lack of attorney access exacerbates the problems immigrant detainees face. Many are likely eligible to remain in the U.S. under existing law. Without access to attorneys, however, they are prevented from fully realizing their right to remain in the country. A large number of people held in detention came to this country seeking asylum. This means that individuals fleeing persecution often arrive in the U.S. only to find themselves locked up and abused.

As chair of the New York City Council’s Immigration Committee, I have introduced two resolutions aimed at sending a message to the federal government that New Yorkers are not happy with the alleged abuse of immigrant detainees in our city.

Resolution 1029 urges Congress to pass the Immigrant Oversight and Fairness Act (H.R. 933). If passed, the resolution would direct the Department of Homeland Security to implement changes in its detention procedures — from creating new care and custody regulations to providing secure alternatives to detention in a privately run facility.

Because many detainees fled their home country due to persecution based on their actual or perceived sexuality or their gender identity, I also introduced a resolution (905) calling on Homeland Security to investigate allegations of abuse of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered individuals in their custody and to take action to ensure the safety of those individuals.

Recently, Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) created a public advocate position as part of an agency wide reform initiative. While I applaud this effort, it is only a first step. New York is, and always has been, an immigrant city. We should stand firm in our resolve to support those who have a legitimate right to remain in the country. To do less is unconscionable.

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