“As we go into an election year, it is vital that New York prioritize passing legislation that will protect immigrants across our state, like the Dignity not Detention Act, and stop using our resources to detain immigrants.”
In an immigration removal defense practice, like we have at The Bronx Defenders, as part of the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project, we often meet with clients like DL*, a 34-year-old immigrant from Mexico who came to the U.S seeking a better life.
When he arrived in the U.S., instead of accessing safety and stability as he expected, he was arrested and put in jail simply because he was not born here.
Once DL was in detention, things got much worse not only for him, but for his family, including his two U.S. citizen children. DL was his family’s support, both emotionally and financially. Without him, his family lost their housing and ended up in a shelter, trying to figure out how to survive. DL started suffering from depression while in a jail that could not meet his mental health needs and was detained there for nearly a year.
But DL is not alone. The New York State Legislature missed a critical opportunity to pass a bill in the 2023 legislative session, which could have helped DL and prevented other people like him from landing in immigrant detention in New York.
The Dignity Not Detention Act (S. 306/A. 4354) sponsored by Senator Salazar and Assemblymember Reyes, would end ICE’s ability to contract with local jails across our state to increase their detention capacity. Other states like New Jersey, California, Washington, Illinois, Maryland, and recently, Colorado have already passed and signed similar legislation.
Detention centers in New York are horrific for immigrants. They maintain poor living conditions in which our clients, like DL, are often neglected, even when they have pressing medical concerns. They are given spoiled food. They may go days without being able to shower, and when they do, usually have to do so without soap. One person that The Bronx Defenders represented described how the air conditioning in his cell was perpetually kept on, causing him to have eye irritation issues that remained untreated for over 15 months.
In addition to medical neglect, many people in detention have recounted their experiences with correctional officers who verbally abuse and disrespect them. One person we work with recounted certain detention officers being unwilling to feed detainees, simply stating, “Why would I spend any of my money to feed you?”
While it is true that the New York State budget for FY 2023-2024 included an increase in funding for legal services and legal representation to immigrant New Yorkers, that does not go far enough to meaningfully support detained immigrants facing deportation. The fact remains that detention is an intentional tool used to pressure immigrants in removal proceedings to abandon their cases, and must end.
There is no other system that places forfeiting one’s constitutionally guaranteed rights as the singular barrier to obtaining liberty, yet detained immigrants must sit with the knowledge that their torture at the hands of ICE would end if they would give up on their cases and face deportation, in many cases to countries where their lives would be at risk or they would face torture anew.
As we go into an election year, it is vital that New York prioritize passing legislation that will protect immigrants across our state, like the Dignity not Detention Act, and stop using our resources to detain immigrants.
By doing so, New York would be taking a step towards striving for equal access to fundamental rights and liberty for our all of our residents.
*Client names have been abbreviated for their protection.
Sristee Acharya is an Immigration Civil Legal Advocate with The Bronx Defenders. Amín Fernández is an immigration attorney with The Bronx Defenders.