November 10, 2010
Hearing Brings Ambiguities of Immigration Law Into Focus
NEW YORK—City Council Speaker Christine Quinn led a council hearing on Wednesday to investigate the cooperation between New York City’s Department of Corrections (DOC) and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
The DOC shares information with ICE and has handed certain detainees over to ICE custody for trial and deportation. The goal of the collaboration is to identify and bring to justice illegal immigrant criminals, especially repeat offenders.
The hearing focused on the Rikers Island prison complex, where 10–20 ICE agents are a permanent fixture. Rikers holds defendants awaiting trial, as well as convicted criminals in transition to state prisons.
Immigrant advocates, especially members of Make the Road New York (MRNY), say that in addition to criminals being handed over to ICE custody, DOC has also transferred foreign-born U.S. citizens, victims of crimes, and refugees to immigration detention centers as far away as Louisiana.
“I am not saying that there should not be a relationship between the DOC and ICE,” said Quinn. “I am saying we should engage in a conversation in how to focus that relationship in a way that meets the public safety goals which the DOC is critical to, but doesn’t go beyond that in a way that is too broad.”
The council reviewed the factors that determine which inmates are detained, interviewed and possibly taken into custody by ICE.
Of approximately 100,000 admissions to Rikers annually, about 13,000 are foreign-born, reported DOC Commissioner Dora Shriro. ICE places detainers on about 3,000 of these foreign-born inmates, allowing DOC to hold the detainee an additional 48 hours while ICE investigates the individual’s case. About 2,500 of these inmates are transferred to ICE custody after such an investigation.
The exact method ICE uses to determine which inmates receive a detainer or which are taken into custody was unknown to anyone at Wednesday’s hearing. ICE representatives were invited to the hearing but declined to testify. ICE did not respond to inquiries as of press deadline.
According to Shriro, the DOC asks the detainee upon arrival at Rikers his or her country of birth and citizenship status, and this information is shared with ICE.
When ICE requests an interview with an individual, the inmate is free to decline without consequence, said Shriro. Efforts have been made at Rikers to better inform immigrants of their right to refuse this interview and the possible consequences of speaking with ICE officials. Inmates are allowed legal counsel during the interview.
Javier Valdes of MRNY says these efforts are not enough and many inmates are still unclear as to the consequences of the interview. “Often they are shown the information as they are being walked to the interview,” Valdes said.
Councilman Charles Barron said the letter of explanation provided in several languages is still not clear enough about the possible consequence of deportation.
Cost to Taxpayers
MRNY claims the extra detention time exacted by DOC in compliance with ICE detainers on inmates is costing the city approximately $50 million annually. According to Shriro, however, the yearly cost is only $56,000. Councilman Daniel Halloran speculated that the true number probably lies somewhere in between.
Shriro said it costs $12 per day to hold an inmate at Rikers, and ICE detainees are held 1.74 days longer than other inmates on average.
MRNY maintains that the daily cost to hold someone at Rikers is actually $209, a figure they obtained from the mayor’s management report. ICE detainees spent 73 additional days in detention when compared to other inmates, they said, citing a Justice Strategies report released the same day as the hearing. Justice Strategies is an advocacy group that does research on sentencing and correctional policy.
Councilman Halloran, who used to be a social scientist and thus has familiarity with the process of producing such a report, accused Justice Strategies of “cherry-picking the data to get the results [they] wanted.” The report focused only on inmates detained on drug charges.
Aarti Shahani of Justice Strategies, who put together the report, defended it, saying it allowed her to compare ICE detainees with other inmates at the same level of offense.
Halloran and MRNY agree that Shapiro’s $12 a day estimate is too low and probably only includes marginal costs like food, not incorporating additional cost of space and correctional officers required. Halloran, however, proposed that $100 is a more reasonable estimate, as the small number of ICE detainees would not create much of a difference in factors like electricity costs for facilities likely included in the $209 estimate.
Of the foreign-born inmates with an ICE detainer, 72 percent are charged with felonies and 28 percent with misdemeanors. Advocates and several council members agreed that convicted felons should be tried and deported, though a filter should be in place to keep those held for misdemeanors out of ICE’s hands.
Legal Obligation of Doc
The council tried to cut through the ambiguities of the legal relationship between DOC and ICE.
“There’s a lot of confusion. The city has told us they are mandated to [cooperate with ICE]. We sat with ICE officials yesterday who indicated that it is a relationship that is willingly engaged in by the city of New York,” said Council Member Melissa Mark-Viverito.
“That is all reflective of how dysfunctional this immigration system is,” concluded Mark-Viverito.
Shriro stated that Executive Order 41 issued by Bloomberg’s office dictates the DOC’s cooperation with ICE. The order states that “DOC shall continue to cooperate with federal authorities in investigating and apprehending aliens suspected of criminal activity.”
According to Quinn, in private talks with council members, Bloomberg’s administration said it is not a matter of choice on their part. An ICE lawyer, however, told council members in a private meeting that they were unaware of any mandate that requires state or city compliance.
Shriro could not trace the history of the Rikers-ICE relationship to its origins. ICE has been at Rikers for about 20 years.
“There are no records [concerning the arrival of ICE] that I am aware of, and I don’t know how they got there,” said the commissioner.
“There is no document outlining the structure of the relationship between DOC and ICE,” noted Quinn.
Though the hearing was a start in bringing clarity to the issue and establishing facts, ambiguities remained.
“If a mayoral action started it, a mayoral action could end or limit it,” said Quinn, responding to Shriro’s claim that mayoral order 41 was at the heart of the issue.
At least the council has decided where to focus their efforts.
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