By Jake Offenhartz
May 29, 2019
Hundreds of immigrants detained at the southern border have been transferred to jails in the New York City area in the last few weeks, as the Trump administration takes unprecedented steps to manage a growing number of migrants seeking entry to the United States.
According to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesperson, a total of 235 individuals were transferred this month to three jails in Bergen, Hudson, and Orange Counties to await federal court hearings. An immigration official told the Daily News that the New York metro area has likely never received such a high number of immigrant detainees apprehended at the border, though it is not the first time that undocumented immigrants have been sent across the country for court proceedings.
As crossings have spiked in recent months, the federal government has taken increasingly aggressive steps to stem what they claim is an "emergency crisis" at the southern border. Earlier this week, POLITICO reported that thousands of undocumented immigrants are being sent to new cities for processing for the first time in American history (processing, which may involve the individual's release, is distinct from detention). The U.S. military is believed to be building half a dozen tent cities near the border to detain immigrants.
The justification for those measures was repeated by an ICE spokesperson on Wednesday, who told Gothamist that the transfers to New York area jails was "[i]n response to a surge in border arrivals that began late last year."
But in the view of the Legal Aid Society's Jennifer Williams, the agency's explanation is little more than a "propaganda campaign," fueled in part by President Donald Trump's aggressive crackdown on asylum seekers and haphazard declarations on Twitter.
"They don't have enough bed space because they're refusing to parole people into the country," Williams, who works as the Deputy Attorney-In-Charge of the legal group's Immigration Law Unit, told Gothamist. "It's all manipulation so they can point to their numbers and crank the deportation machine."
Williams also speculated that the timing of these transfers was likely related to Trump's professed intention to send undocumented immigrants to so-called "sanctuary cities" as political retribution. White House officials claimed that plan was not actually under consideration, though the president has repeatedly insisted otherwise.
"The timing is no coincidence," Williams added. "[Trump] decides something and then a month or two later they start implementing whatever he's tweeting about." As an example, she linked Trump's calls to deport immigrants without due process to the rise in televideo conferencing at federal immigration courts in New York City.
Citing federal privacy laws, ICE would not divulge specifics about the new migrants being sent to the region for detention—including how many were asylum-seekers, and whether any individuals might be released from the facilities. Gothamist's inquiries to the Office of Refugee Resettlement about a possible corresponding influx in transfers of minors to New York were also not returned. A spokesperson for the East Harlem Cayuga Center, which last year received dozens of migrant children as a result of the president's family separation policy, said they hadn't heard anything about a coming surge, but were monitoring the situation.
Immigrants facing deportation in New York City are eligible for free legal services through the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project. After local advocates demanded additional funding for that effort, the City Council announced a $1.6 million emergency allocation in March.
In a statement, the commissioner of the Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs, Bitta Mostofi, said: "New York values mean caring for our immigrant sisters and brothers, including women and children fleeing instability in Central America. We will use every tool at our disposal to focus on what's best for asylum seekers and for New York City as we always do, not the President's political games."
Still, immigrant advocates and public defenders say the city’s protections could be undermined by a recent decision issued by Attorney General William Barr, which would strip asylum seekers who enter the country illegally of the right to bond hearings. The ACLU has vowed to block the ruling before it goes into effect this summer. If they're unsuccessful, ICE would be the sole decider of whether a person waiting for a federal hearing—a process that can take years—should receive parole.
"We're looking at a massive number of people in detention who will have no opportunity before an impartial adjudicator to seek release," Williams warned. That group will likely include many of the detainees transferred to ICE-contracted jails this month, as well as others sent to the area in the coming weeks and months.
"There's an army of folks that want to help, but because of [the Barr] decision we're up against time," the attorney added. "The clock is ticking."