Immigration officials confirmed the moves to City Limits Tuesday, and lawyers say some 35 detainees have been sent from the Orange County Jail to as far away as Mississippi.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) abruptly transferred dozens of people in custody at New York’s Orange County Correctional Facility to other locations, according to organizations providing free legal representation to immigrants detained at the site, who decried the moves as “reckless.”
Since last week, attorneys with the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP) who represent people held at the jail have been asking ICE if it would be transferring detainees after hearing rumors from their clients, and ICE denied such plans.
But advocates reported Monday that at least 35 detainees have been transferred to Mississippi, and two to the Buffalo (Batavia) Federal Detention Facility, “without any prior notice to detained people’s families or legal counsel.” The advocates say they believe at least 60 transfers have been initiated in total.
An ICE spokesperson confirmed on Tuesday afternoon that “on July 25, a number of detainees were transferred from Orange County Jail to a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facilities in Mississippi and New York as part of a facility-wide reduction in population affecting all agencies that use the facility,” but did not give a number for how many people had been moved.
“To accommodate various operational demands, and meet emergent requirements, ICE routinely transfers individuals to designated facilities and locations based on available space and resources, at the needs of the agency and other partner agencies with whom the agency coordinates whole-of-government efforts,” the spokesperson added.
Public defender organizations Brooklyn Defender Services, Legal Aid Society and The Bronx Defenders say they were put on alert after detainees at the Goshen, NY, facility received COVID-19 tests at the same time during the weekend—a practice that has been used before mass transfers occur.
“Generally, in the past, that has been the pattern,” said Legal Aid’s NYIFUP Deputy Attorney Sharone Kaufman, explaining that the group testing of detainees at a facility is typically a sign of massive transfers to come.
Additionally, on Sunday, advocates received multiple calls from immigrants inside Orange County Correctional Facility. “I’m calling on behalf of those who are still at OCJ in Housing D1 to let the public know that they are transferring us without telling us where we are going,” reads a statement from Envision Freedom Fund, citing an immigrant held at the facility.
According to ICE’s transfer policies, family members “or other third parties,” are not required to be notified about such moves. But if an ICE detainee has an attorney registered with the court, ICE should notify the attorney. Referring to Monday’s transfers, ICE said that the New York field office made the attorney and detainee notifications in accordance with the agency’s transfer policy.
NYIFUP’s defenders condemned the situation, saying they were not given prior notice and no opportunity to make a release request.
Detainees’ names were also removed from the GTL video system, which attorneys use to video-chat with their clients, another indication that transfers were underway, the advocates said. “Detainee names have been removed from the list, not showing up in the detainee locator or the video system,” said Karla Ostolaza, managing director of the immigration practice at The Bronx Defenders.
One of their clients had a court hearing scheduled for Tuesday, Kaufman added. On Monday afternoon, advocates at the Envision Freedom Fund said via Twitter that at least 60 immigrants from Orange County Jail were transferred outside of New York.
The Orange County Sheriff’s Office, which oversees the jail, did not immediately respond to City Limits’ questions regarding the transfers and referred questions to ICE. Gov. Kathy Hochul’s office also referred questions to ICE and the Sheriff’s Office.
NYIFUP’s attorneys say they were told by ICE officials earlier this month that Orange County Jail’s management staff requested a downsizing of the overall population in their facility. In May, ICE reported to City Limits that a total of 131 detainees were held at the facility in Goshen.
“This does not come as a surprise,” Ostolaza said of the downsizing request, “given the completely inadequate conditions at the facility.”
The jail has been the subject of a possible COVID-19 outbreak among immigrants there, as well as oversight visits by elected officials and allegations of medical neglect, verbal abuse and retaliation. Jail officials have denied these claims.
Craig Relles, a private attorney who had meetings with clients at the jail scheduled for Monday, was told those appointments were canceled because detainees had been transferred. So far, he has confirmed that six of his 18 clients were moved to Adams County Correctional Center in Natchez, Mississippi, and one to Batavia, the largest ICE detention center in New York State.
“The transfer without notice is a punitive action,” said Relles over the phone. “It causes delays in their cases and limits the attorney’s ability to represent their clients properly, and hampers the [ability] to have due process.”
He has already notified his clients’ families, he added, and says they are devastated by the moves.
At the time of publication, the Legal Aid Society said it had confirmed 13 transfers so far, including one to Batavia and 12 to Adams County Correctional Center, where as of July 24, there were 10 active COVID-19 cases, according to the COVID-19 ICE Detainee Tracker.
Brooklyn Defender Services reports that 11 of their clients were transferred and the Bronx Defenders says six of their clients were moved, all of them to the Mississippi facility. More transfers occurred Tuesday morning, advocates say.
Advocates and progressive lawmakers have been pushing for the state to end its existing contracts with ICE. Legislation which would have prohibited New York from housing ICE detainees at its correctional facilities was introduced in Albany this year, but did not pass before the legislative session wrapped up in June.
Neighboring New Jersey passed a similar ban last year, resulting in detainee transfers that sometimes left immigrants without access to free local legal counsel provided by the state, the website Documented reported earlier this month.
Advocates called the lack of timely information about where detainees were being moved to as “reckless and unsafe.”
“We demand ICE stop the transfers, and release detained immigrant New Yorkers to their families where they can access the care and community support that ICE is incapable of providing to those they detain,” NYIFUP said in a statement Monday.