They're housed in cells and guarded by armed officers and barbed wire, but most of the approximately 30,000 people in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers have not committed criminal violations.
Residing in the United States illegally is a civil code violation — the type of transgression for which detention cannot be used as a punishment — but most ICE detention centers are modeled after prisons and jails, according to Dora Schriro, commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction.
“Everything about the manner of the incapacitation is taken from the world of criminal justice and is based on the premises of individuals who are charged with violations of criminal law,” Schriro said yesterday during a a panel discussion at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which kicked off a semester-long series of special events related to the topic.
The commissioner, who served as director of ICE's Office of Detention Policy and Planning in 2009, called for an end to the practice of having ICE run its own detainment centers.
Civil detainment should be “a system that is to the greatest extent possible, normalized,” she said.
Schriro was joined on the panel by Alina Das, co-director of New York University's Immigrant Rights Clinic, Angela Fernandez, Executive Director of the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights and Talia Peleg, an attorney with the Brooklyn Defender Services.
From arrest to deportation, the panelists said, immigration detainees are treated like criminals.
No Miranda Warning
But navigating immigration hearings can be much more complicated than taking on criminal cases. Since residing in the country illegally is a civil violation, the accused do not have to be read the Miranda warning, and are not entitled to legal representation.
But a lawyer can be the difference between returning home to one's family and being forcibly removed from the country, according to Fernandez.
Schriro pointed to a 2011 study of New York's detained immigrants that was written under the auspices of Second Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Robert Katzmann. The study found that about 60 percent of New York's detained immigrants between 2005 and 2010 were not represented by attorneys.
Of those, only 3 percent won in court.
In comparison, about 67 percent of those who did have counsel had successful outcomes in their cases.
But the odds of securing counsel start dropping from the moment an immigrant is detained. Many are identified through Secure Communities, a fingerprint-sharing program created by ICE, that routes local and state files through a federal database.
The controversial program, launched in 2008, helps ICE quickly locate even those accused of relatively minor crimes. Jumping a subway turnstile or possessing marijuana can be enough to rapidly send an immigrant on a track towards deportation, according to Talia Peleg.
“What we've started to see happening is that immigration detainees are being (recognized by ICE) as early as arrest, which was generally not happening before,” Peleg said.
Once an immigrant is detained by ICE, he or she can be moved from a local jail to a federal facility in another state, or even across the country.
Confined to a jail cell across state lines and far from family and supporters, just one in five detainees manage to secure legal counsel.
“For most … the system doesn't provide that relief, that day in court,” said NYU's Alina Das.
Graham Kates is deputy managing editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers. He can be found on Twitter, @GrahamKates.