(Another article in the continuing Border Lines series on the Homeland Security Complex and National Security Contracting.)
The New York Times had another horror story about immigrant detention, another in a impressive string of investigative articles by NYT’s Nina Bernstein that have underscored the federal government’s lack of oversight and abusive treatment of legal and illegal immigrants.
Such stories – about deaths and suicides in immigrant prisons, huge profits in immigrant inmate outsourcing, and the tragic isolation of immigrants without legal recourse or access to families – are now common fare in both the mainstream and alternative media.
What’s new in this latest report on the country’s abusive and systematically outsourced immigrant detention and imprisonment system is that the contractor that runs the NYC detention center is an Alaska Native Corporation (ANC) – one of the dozens of such corporations that since 2000 have cashed in on billions of dollars of preferential and often no-bid, single-source contracts from the defense, homeland security, interior, and energy departments.
Many of the recent immigrant-outsourcing stories involving private prison firms are of remote prisons, many along the border, where immigrants are mass incarcerated and mass processed for deportation. In this case, though, the maltreated immigrants are largely New York residents who are locked up in a little-known immigrant jail on the fourth floor of the federal building in Greenwich Village.
The Varick Street Detention Facility is an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility with a 275-500 bed capacity that sits three floors above the local Greenwich Village post office on the corner of Houston and Varick Streets. There are no open-air or recreational facilities in the lock-up, which functions as a temporary holding center for male immigrants picked up by Homeland Security’s ICE or other federal agents in the New York City area.
As many as 11,000 immigrants pass through the Varick lock-up every year. The Native American corporation Ahtna Inc., which is increasingly specializing in immigrant detention, has a collection of management, operational, custodial, and maintenance contracts to run the immigrant holding center for ICE.
Its subsidiary Ahtna Technical Services took over the operation and management of the facility in 2008 after ICE reopened the controversial detention center – which had become unmanageably overcrowded in the late 1990s as the result of an influx of legal immigrants held on mandatory detention and deportation orders because of new laws that greatly expanded the number of deportable offenses, including drug possession.
The center also gained notoriety after of the 1999 death of a Dominican immigrant from untreated pneumonia.
Systematic Barriers to Legal and Community Support
One of the main tragedies and abuses here -- and at most other immigrant detention centers -- is the transient character of immigrant detention and imprisonment. For lawyers and families, it is a challenge to find client and loved ones because they are routinely transferred to other, often far-removed prisons with little or no prior notification.
Regarded as “aliens” with no right to be in the country, the federal imprisoning agencies at Homeland Security and the Justice Department give little consideration to the family, legal, or community ties that immigrants have made in the areas where they have lived or worked – in many cases for decades.
When asked about the legal, emotional, and psychological problems of placing immigrants so far away from their families, community of friends, and legal and other support networks, Hassel Terry, warden of the Otero Processing Center in New Mexico, replied with a smirk:
“We are taking them away from their homes. They left their homes in Mexico or wherever else they came from. We are simply trying to get them back home.”The Otero Processing Center, located in the barren desert alongside north of El Paso, holds ICE detainees from all parts of the country, including New York, Maine, Massachusetts, and other distant states. Warden Terry is an employee of the Management Training Corporation, the country’s fourth largest prison company.
Most of the immigrants held at the Varick center are transferred out of New York City to geographically remote and rural areas to larger ICE detention centers as well as to immigrant prisons and detention centers contracted out by the U.S. Marshals Service and the Bureau of Prisons – the two Justice Department agencies that imprison immigrants. Depending on their ICE- and Justice Department-defined status – legal or illegal, criminal aliens, asylum petitioners, fugitive aliens – the immigrants go to a succession of USMS, BOP, and ICE prisons and detention centers.
From the big city they are scattered throughout the country in a network of isolated privately run facilities that are federal in name only. Those immigrants (legal and illegal) with criminal records, often simply drug possession or driving violations, go first to Department of Justice prisons sponsored by the USMS and Bureau of Prisons – although all operated by private firms – and then to detention centers operated under the authority of the Department of Homeland Security.
Immigrants without criminal records are also shifted to remote ICE detention centers in Texas and Louisiana where the per-diem fees are much lower than the $227.68 per day that ICE pays Ahtna Inc. for detaining immigrants at the Varick detention center.
Immigration Consequences for Criminal Violations -- Double-Jeopardy
What’s so striking – and so typical – about the horrors of immigrant detention at this ICE lockup in Greenwich Village is the double-jeopardy faced by immigrants, especially long-term legal residents. At the Varick facility, like every ICE, USMS, and BOP immigrant prison, the merger of misguided drug control and immigration control policies forms a juggernaut of enforcement -- from which there is no legal escape and which metes out immigration consequences for even nonviolent drug violations.
The NYT story highlighted the case of a Haitian, described as a barber, interpreter, and legal resident of Brooklyn for 23 years, who had previously served time for a drug-related offense but now was being processed for deportation because of his criminal record—not apparently because he living and working illegally in New York.
“It is double jeopardy,” he protested, nursing a swollen jaw with teeth missing. “I become a diabetic here, because of anxiety, stress and suicidal conditions.” Bernstein described the case of another 25-year-old who had come to New York as a legal immigrant from Belize at age 2. As an adult, the Belizean immigrant had been working at Kentucky Fried Chicken to support his 5-year-old daughter, a citizen, when his sickle-cell anemia permitted.
Despite his long presence in the country, lawyers told him, according to Bernstein, that since he had old convictions for marijuana where was ineligible for release on bond or with an electronic monitoring bracelet.
The Fordham Law Review has published an excellent report in its November 2009 edition that treats the Varick jail as a case study in the systemic barriers to legal representation. Next: What Does Ahtna Really Do?