NYC Council Speaker Calls on DHS to End Use of Private Immigration Detention Centers

Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito after touring immigration surge docket proceedings for unaccompanied minors.

Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito after touring immigration surge docket proceedings for unaccompanied minors. (Photo: Jillian Jorgensen for Observer)

After the Department of Justice announced this summer it would stop using private prisons, Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito is calling on the feds to end their use of privately-run immigration detention centers.

In a letter sent this morning to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Sarah Saldaña, Mark-Viverito argued the private contractors “time and again, have proven themselves unfit or unwilling to meet proper standards of care.”

The letter had auspicious timing—a few hours after it was sent (and after the Observer sought comment on it), DHS released a statement saying they had ordered a review of the use of private detention centers on Friday to determine whether the department should follow the lead of DOJ.

“Specifically, I have asked that Judge Webster establish a Subcommittee of the Council to review our current policy and practices concerning the use of private immigration detention and evaluate whether this practice should be eliminated,” Johnson said in a statement. “I asked that the Subcommittee consider all factors concerning ICE’s detention policy and practice, including fiscal considerations.”

DHS will receive a written report on the review by November 30, Johnson said.

Many of the private detention centers used by ICE, Mark-Viverito wrote in her letter, are run by the same companies that operate the private prisons the Department of Justice announced it will no longer use, following a series of exposes on conditions in privately run prisons. In a memo, the DOJ said that the shift was possible due to a shrinking prison population and that it would “ensure consistency in safety, security and rehabilitation services by operating its own prison facilities.”

“Unlike government-run prisons and detention centers, privately run institutions are not subject to the same reporting and transparency requirements,” Mark-Viverito wrote to DHS and ICE. “As a result, the DHS and private contractors have deprived civil immigration detainees of basic physical and legal rights without consequence.  Given the number of class-action lawsuits recently filed by immigrants, the DHS can no longer ignore the systemic violation of the human rights of immigrants in administrative detention, many of whom are refugees and asylum seekers.”

Mark-Viverito also cited reports of people being held in solitary confinement for logistical reasons, including LGBTQ immigrants or those whose age federal officials cannot determine.

“The use of solitary confinement within criminal prisons is extremely controversial, and its use in civil detention centers even more so, particularly where, as here, it is being used for administrative convenience,” she wrote.

The detention centers, especially those designed for families, experienced a sharp increase in population in recent years as immigrants, including unaccompanied children, flooded over the border to flee violence in Central America—many of them ultimately trying to seek asylum in this country.

Upon arrival, the undocumented immigrants are given “credible fear interviews” to determine whether they might qualify for asylum, based on their history in the country they have left. If the government determines they do have a “credible fear,” they are typically let into the country to pursue their case in court—subject to certain conditions like paying a bond, regularly checking in with ICE officers, attending court dates or wearing an ankle monitor.

Many of those people, including unaccompanied children who were reunited with family in New York City, went on to be part of the “surge docket” in federal court to determine whether they qualified for asylum. The amount of children appearing in court without attorneys led the City Council to partner with legal aid groups to fund lawyers for all the unaccompanied minors appearing in federal court here.

But other undocumented immigrants are held in detention centers after arriving at the border, including those who have not yet had their credible fear interview or did not demonstrate a credible fear, those that could not pay a bond or would not wear an ankle bracelet, and those who have failed to prove they are eligible for some kind of immigration relief.

Mark-Viverito has been an outspoken proponent of immigration reform nationally. Locally, in addition to the funding for unaccompanied minors, the Council has also passed legislation that removed ICE offices from Rikers Island and halted the practice of turning undocumented people who had been arrested over to ICE after they were released from custody, unless they had been convicted of a serious crime and ICE produced a warrant.

NYC Council Speaker Calls on DHS to End Use of Private Immigration Detention Centers