Commentary

Philly’s ICE field office is flouts its own agency’s guidance, putting lives in danger | Opinion

People navigating their immigration case should be permitted to return home to their families and stay in the community and not remain behind bars in immigration detention

DENVER, COLORADO – JULY 02: (L-R) Lupe Lopez, Amy Bautista 3 and Jose Louis Garcia at the #CloseTheCamps United We Dream, American Friends Service Committee, and Families Belong Together led protests across the country at members of Congress’s offices to demand the closure of inhumane immigrant detention centers that subject children and families to horrific conditions. Constituents delivered a letter asking the members to visit a detention facility this week, stop funding family detention and deportation, and use all their powers to close the camps on July 02, 2019 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Tom Cooper/Getty Images for MoveOn.org Civic Action)

By Bridget Cambria

A month ago, York County announced it was ending its contract with ICE, meaning it would no longer serve as an immigration detention center. The facility has a sordid history.

After immigration advocates toured York County Prison in 2019, they sent a letter of findings to the local field office and the DHS Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.

Among other things, the letter highlighted unsanitary, dirty conditions, inadequate access to medical and mental health care, and poor quality of life. Despite warnings from advocates about the cramped, unsanitary conditions, ICE continued to operate at York County Prison.

Once the pandemic began, advocates sounded the alarm and asked ICE to release people, especially those who are medically vulnerable. This led to litigation that freed medically vulnerable people from ICE detention. And sadly, just as advocates had warned, COVID-19 ravished through jails and prisons, including at York County Prison, which experienced a sustained and extensive COVID-19 outbreak.

As a practitioner at York for the past 10 years, it is one of the places where I have seen the most prolonged periods of detention ever – civil detention, spanning years, separating families within our community and unnecessarily detaining people seeking safety.

During the pandemic, and in part due to litigation and advocacy efforts to free people from ICE detention, detention numbers dropped to lower than we’ve seen in two decades. So when the Biden Administration took office, there was an opportunity for a new path.

One where release, not detention, was the presumption. Immigration is, after all, a civil law scheme, meaning that ICE detention, if it is used at all, is never supposed to be about punishment.

After ICE’s acting director, Tae Johnson, issued guidance to ICE officers about who they should arrest, detain, and release, the local ICE office should have begun releasing people who did not fall within its enforcement priorities. But they did not.

Even still, the announcement of York ending its contract with ICE was yet another opportunity for ICE to make the right choice, and in accordance with its own guidance, release, not transfer people. But instead, mere days after the announcement, ICE began transferring people around the country like some cruel shell game.

One of the people transferred is a client of Aldea, a legal services organization for immigrants, where I serve as executive director. As a medically vulnerable person with strong local ties, he should have been released.

But instead he transferred to the deep south, and because he was not provided his medication, he was hospitalized. After we submitted another request for release (the same one that had been before the local field office here and denied), he was immediately released. His wife had to buy his plane ticket back to Pennsylvania. While we are thrilled he is back home with his family, his three year detention here in Pennsylvania in which he experienced abuse and medical neglect, severely impacted him.

It was only after the tenacious advocacy efforts of local community based organizations and legal service providers that the local field office halted transfers and began reviewing people for release. While the short reprieve gave us time to submit requests for release, the fight for freedom for our clients has not come easy. For example, we sought the release of another client who was clearly not a priority under the interim enforcement memo, a father with incredibly strong family and community ties to our region.

Despite this, ICE notified us he was set to be transferred. We kept pushing for his release through the weekend and on Monday morning, we received good news. Not only was he not transferred, but he was released to his family. Release was simply the right decision, and it should have been the decision from the start.

While we celebrate these two recent client victories, we are deeply troubled by what we continue to see. Dozens of people remain detained at York and the clock is ticking. The county’s contract with ICE ends on August 12. But with more transfers happening as early as this weekend, time is running out.

People navigating their immigration case should be permitted to return home to their families and in community and not remain behind bars in immigration detention. Not only is release permitted under ICE’s own guidance and well within their authority, but it is an imperative for ensuring the basic human dignity of our clients.

The ICE field office in Philadelphia can and must do better. We hope that the Biden administration will ensure that they are following the rules.

Bridget Cambria is an immigration attorney and advocate for immigrant children and families. She is the executive director of Aldea. She writes from Berks County.

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