Elifu Massel, an immigration attorney, has met his client only once–at his first hearing for deportation, held in November. The next time will be in January for the final hearing. They might have met more often, but Massel is in New York and his client is in Oakdale, Louisiana. “I have the added difficulty of getting there, and the witnesses will have to be telephonic,” Massel said. Meanwhile, his client’s family hasn’t seen him since Columbus Day. “It’s just too difficult to get to,” he said.
While transferring detained immigrants out of state is not uncommon, local immigration lawyers say it seems to be on the rise.
When New York Legal Aid attorney Bryan Lonegan visited New Jersey’s Passaic County Jail in late November to run a “Know Your Rights” workshop, an unusually high 72 detainees attended. Two days later, one detainee told him all of those men had been sent to Oakdale. “What really concerns me is that many of the men I saw were eligible for relief, cancellation, waivers,” he wrote in an email to an ACLU listserve. “Relatives have called me completely devastated and surprised by the rapid turn of events.”
The New Jersey regional office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) could not confirm the transfers. “People move all the time,” said spokesperson Kerry Gill. “We don’t keep statistics that way.”
Informally, however, lawyers see an increase. At one point in the late 1990s, “one in every two detainees was transferred to Oakdale,” claimed Kerry Brentz, a partner at Brentz and Cove, a Manhattan law firm that specializes in immigration. Then the transfers seemed to level off, he said–until now. “That practice has really picked up again in the last couple of months.”
The first spike likely resulted from the passage of the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which made it easier for the INS to deport foreigners who commit aggravated felonies twice in the U.S. The definition of “aggravated felony” was changed to include lesser offenses such as turnstile-jumping or shoplifting. If a country refuses to accept detainees, as do Cuba and Vietnam, they are detained indefinitely.
Yet it’s unclear why the transfers might be increasing again now. Illegal immigrants who served prison time in New York used to be held in a detention center on Varick Street to await or appeal their deportation. That facility closed after 9/11 because of security concerns. “The practice is to transfer them to a contract facility with bed space available,” said Mark Thorn, a spokesperson for the New York ICE office.
But why Oakdale? A federal detention center was built there in 1986 to house both asylum-seekers and immigrants with criminal records. Craig Robinson, interim field office director in the New Orleans ICE office, said Louisiana is a popular choice for transfers because beds are relatively inexpensive. He has not, however, noticed an increase. He pointed out that detainees are not necessarily held at the federal Oakdale facility itself and could be at a number of local jails in the area.
In a 1998 report, Human Rights Watch found that deportees housed in local jails were often mistreated and had trouble accessing language services and legal help. While some practices have changed since then, according to senior researcher Alison Parker, the group remains concerned about transfers.
So does Robert Divine, an immigration attorney and author of Immigration Practice. “Oakdale, Louisiana is in the middle of nowhere,” he said. “Look it up on the map. It is a long way from anywhere.”