In a years-in-the-making win for immigrants and their advocates last month, the Biden administration announced that it would no longer be jailing immigrants at the disreputable Etowah County Detention Center in Alabama. The site was initially recommended for closure more then a decade ago, but evaded it under pressure from right-wing lawmakers. No more.
But mirroring events following closures in a number of other states, rather than just releasing immigrants detained at Etowah, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials are instead transferring them elsewhere. In this case, to a privately operated prison in Louisiana with its own “history of neglect and reported abuses,” The Advocate reports.
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Legal representatives told The Advocate that nearly a dozen asylum-seekers have been moved to the GEO Group-operated LaSalle Correctional Center in Jena, which has been the center of major complaints within the past five years. That includes a 2017 civil rights complaint finding the site “had the highest number of sexual and/or physical abuse incidents in the country.”
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“Now, ICE has begun holding people in solitary confinement at LaSalle, as the jail is over capacity,” said advocacy organization Freedom for Immigrants. “Solitary confinement is a torturous, inhumane, and cruel practice.” The Advocate reports that nurses in 2019 filed a lawsuit against GEO Group alleging that they got sick from mold and other toxins at the facility. But a judge threw out most of the cases.
“The years of ongoing abuse at LaSalle underscore what we've already known to be true: All immigration detention is inherently dehumanizing and abusive,” Freedom for Immigrants continued. “It's not enough to move people from one jail to another.”
But that’s exactly what ICE has done in response to numerous people-powered wins against the mass detention agency. In New Jersey last fall, Bergen County was the remaining locality in the state to continue holding a federal immigration contract when the commissioner board voted unanimously to end the agreement. Like in Alabama, it was the culmination of years of organizing by immigrants and advocates.
But rather than releasing them, ICE moved them hundreds of miles away to New York. It was the same in Illinois earlier this year following implementation of state law that effectively ended immigration detention in the state. Injustice Watch reported nearly three dozen immigrants were instead sent to facilities in Indiana, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Texas. “The rest were deported or transferred to other law enforcement agencies.”
“They’re just taking me farther and farther from the family,” one of the immigrants, Armando Cazares, said in the report. “I didn’t even wanna tell my mom where I’m at. I’m scared. I’m breaking my mom’s heart.”
Remember: Data indicates most people in ICE custody “do not have a single criminal conviction,” and ICE has discretion to allow them to pursue their cases from their own homes and communities.
“In March 2020, in fact, more than six out of ten (61.2%) had no conviction, not even for a minor petty offense,” TRAC Immigration said. In an unprecedented move, the Department of Homeland Security watchdog recently urged the removal of all people detained at the Torrance County Detention Facility in New Mexico, citing inhumane conditions. But ICE’s reaction was to instead attack the integrity of the report, including accusing the inspector general’s office of staging photos.
“Human rights abuses are inherent to the immigration detention system, and all immigration detention centers are abusive,” Freedom for Immigrants Director of Visitation Advocacy Strategies Sofia Casini told The Advocate. “That’s why it’s not enough to transfer people from one abusive jail to another. This is not some shell game: We are talking about peoples’ lives.”
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