‘ICE has abruptly moved at least 50 locally detained immigrants without notice. In many cases, detained individuals have simply disappeared.’

Josh Denmark/DHS

ICE’s Batavia-Buffalo Federal Detention Facility in upstate New York.

In May 2021, after being detained for seven months at a local Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility, our client was whisked hundreds of miles away—without warning—to a holding facility in a rural part of the southeastern United States. He was not told where he was going. Neither his attorneys nor his family were notified. For a time, he essentially disappeared.

This father of three young children and caretaker of an ill, elderly mother had resided lawfully in New York City for nearly 10 years and braved the dangers of the COVID-19 epidemic as an essential worker. Suddenly, he found himself far from everything that mattered to him: his home, his family, and his attorney, with no explanation for what was happening.

“At one point during the transfer, I questioned my will to live,” the client later explained to his lawyer. “Out of all the things I have lived through, being handcuffed by ICE on a plane or van for hours and hours was the worst thing I’ve ever experienced.”

That the transfer happened without advance notice to either him or to his attorney should, by itself, raise alarm. That his case was only one in a recent spate of secretive transfers that have seen several of our detained clients moved from the NYC area to ICE detention centers across the country is cause for condemnation, as it carries serious implications for our clients’ ability to access counsel, evidence, and witnesses for their cases—as well as their families and support networks.

Indeed, since January 2021, ICE has abruptly moved at least 50 locally detained immigrants without notice, disrupting access to counsel ranging from the most basic phone calls to those involving urgent, time-sensitive matters including court-imposed filing deadlines. In many cases, detained individuals have simply disappeared, with ICE deportation officers refusing to respond to reasonable inquiries from counsel about their clients’ whereabouts for extended periods of time. In one instance, ICE contacted one of our attorneys more than two weeks after the fact to “notify” her that her client had been transferred.

To make matters worse, conditions in these distant jails—located in Pennsylvania, Alabama, and Louisiana—are often much worse than those our clients have left behind, posing greater and potentially lethal risks for their health, safety, and well-being.

Reports from clients confirm meager, low-quality meals, limited access to already substandard medical care, and prohibitively expensive phone systems. Individuals have no access to recreation time outside of their units, which are chronically overcrowded due to the continual influx of newly-arrested persons and which often house twice as many individuals as they were designed to hold. Some clients have reported being forced to sleep on the floor, with only a blanket.

Unnecessary out-of-state transfers are the latest in a long list of senseless, life-threatening actions taken by ICE during the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the past 15 months, ICE has repeatedly demonstrated an inability to properly safeguard against the virus. Outbreaks continue to occur in its facilities, yet it still lacks a national vaccination strategy. To transfer individuals across the country, often forcing them to be housed sequentially at multiple facilities over the course of a few days, callously and needlessly endangers lives while grotesquely abrogating individuals’ most basic legal and human rights and instilling panic in clients’ family members who simply wish to know the whereabouts of their loved ones.

Immigration enforcement is a civil matter. Our clients are not incarcerated as a result of criminal proceedings, but only because ICE has chosen to detain them. Earlier this month, we joined other immigrant advocacy organizations in a joint letter to ICE demanding a cease to out-of-state transfers and calling for an immediate release of all recently-transferred individuals, as well as all those currently incarcerated at detention facilities in the tri-state area. We repeat that call today.

Last year, President Biden promised that his administration would hold immigration authorities responsible for the inhumane treatment of people held in detention facilities, and to roll back the draconian policies of the previous administration.

He can make good on that pledge today by ending this practice and freeing our clients from deplorable conditions that no human being should have to endure.

Morganne Barrett, Jennifer Grant and Perry McAninch, attorneys with the New York Immigrant Family Unit Project at The Legal Aid Society.

A spokesperson from ICE sent the following statement in response to this column:

“ICE routinely manages bed space on a national level. This most recent transfer is due to a request by the Essex County Correctional Facility to depopulate the remaining ICE detainees.  The location of ICE detainees can be found on the ICE detainee locator on www.ice.gov, based on A# or DOB and nationality.”