By Diego Graglia, FI2W web editor
Most of the thousands of New Yorkers who walk by the Varick Federal Detention Facility every day are probably unaware of its existence, but the immigration jail on Hudson Street in New York City’s Greenwich Village holds thousands of detainees every year.
Over one third of those detainees “had reasonable claims” for being released, but most didn’t have access to legal counsel –not guaranteed to immigrants under U.S. law– and many were shipped away from New York, some before a “volunteer lawyer could finish researching the case,” says a report released Monday by the New York City Bar Association’s Justice Center.
The document (click for pdf) –reported on first by The New York Times— also found that 90% of those who had been granted bond were unable to raise the funds necessary for their release and remained in detention.
The Justice Center began its investigation of the detention facility, operated under a contract with an Alaska Native Corporation controlled by the Athabascan Indians, after it received a letter signed by 92 men held there. The Times’ Nina Bernstein narrated:
“In vivid if flawed English, it described cramped, filthy quarters where dire medical needs were ignored and hungry prisoners were put to work for $1 a day.”
“…The lawyers say their effort has laid bare the fundamental unfairness of a system where immigrant detainees, unlike criminal defendants, can be held without legal representation and moved from state to state without notice.”
The Justice Center quotes part of the letter in its announcement:
“Firstly and most importantly despite the fact that upon admitting us in here, we are given a ‘detainee handbook’ which very nicely lists our rights and obligations in here, almost nothing is followed or applicable giving them the full power to change the rules as they go.
“Reducing us to silence by using force, mental torture (yes torture in America) if we try to put a complaint we are threatened to be moved to worse facilities around the country, (what can be worse then this?). So fear is a tool they like to use commonly to control us.”
Through its research of the cases of 158 detainees, which raised “serious due process concerns,” the Justice Center found that the men’s chance of having a successful outcome “was drastically reduced by lack of counsel.”
“The work in Varick shows what the … report states, that removal proceedings are criminal trials in all but name,” said City Bar president Patricia M. Hynes in the announcement. “The adversary system only works as it should if the playing field is kept level with legal representation on both sides.”
“Bearing witness to the detention of people without access to counsel, particularly those who have lived, studied and worked in our community, in some cases for their whole lives but for their birth outside the country, is difficult,” added Lynn Kelly, executive director of the Justice Center.
“The wrenching costs of detention to spouses, life partners, children, parents, employers and communities is beyond the scope of this report, but the toll we witnessed on these cases is high.”
The report recommends that all indigent detainees be assigned counsel, that bond amounts be reduced, that those with family in the New York area and those already consulting with an attorney remain in the Varick facility, that attorneys be notified if their client is transferred, and that detainees receive legal orientation.