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Immigrants testify on abusive conditions at New York facilities

The testimony before New York City Council’s immigration committee follows a civil rights complaint filed last month over abuses at the upstate Orange County Correctional Facility (OCCF). Organizations said immigrants jailed at OCCF have described “a culture of blatantly racist, dehumanizing treatment and an environment of deplorable conditions and access to medical care” that violates ICE’s own protocols. 

Meanwhile, immigrants who dare to express their grievances are threatened with solitary confinement, which is torture. “At OCCF, detained people have reported that officers have repeatedly wielded solitary confinement—and its threat—to silence those attempting to exercise their First Amendment rights by collectively expressing their grievances,” a complaint said.

Advocates on Monday also detailed a pervasive failure by officials to protect immigrants against COVID-19, including putting some on months-long vaccine wait lists. Just yesterday, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a class action lawsuit over ICE’s failure to provide medically vulnerable people with boosters.

The New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP) testified to the committee that it “reached out to OCCF about lack of access to vaccines and were told that vaccine access wasn’t a problem, yet the people we represent remained unvaccinated.” In light of OCCF’s inaction, NYIFUP said it asked if it could take their client to an outside clinic. ICE will sometimes allow this for medical visits. But NYIFUP said ICE ignored the request “until news outlets began reporting on the outbreak at OCCF and the person was finally vaccinated.”

New York City Council’s immigration committee itself does not have the ability to directly shut down this site, but it can pressure the state to terminate its immigration contracts. Brooklyn Defenders said it would be traveling to Albany on Wednesday to advocate for the Dignity Not Detention Act, which would prohibit new immigration detention contracts, and block the renewal of existing ones. This type of law went into effect in Illinois earlier this year. Advocates have also urged the New York City Council to pass a resolution supporting the legislation.

“ICE’s persecution of immigrant communities decenters humanity, pushes New York City further away from establishing and sustaining community safety and trust, and fails to care for and protect people in their custody from COVID-19 and results in other harms inherent to the caging of human beings,” NYIFUP said in a statement.

The civil rights complaint filed with the Department for Homeland Security Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties has already had some effect. Gothamist reported that a recent letter from Damian Williams, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said two OCCF officers were removed from the ICE unit, though not from the facility entirely. But Undersheriff Kenneth Jones was quick to tell Gothamist that it shouldn’t be taken as an acknowledgement of any wrongdoing.

But moving two officers out of the ICE unit will do nothing to fix the widespread problems found within immigration detention. Just look at the fact that Jones himself is named in the civil rights complaint as a former member of the racist Oath Keepers militia group, which was created in direct response to the election of a Black U.S. president. Leaders, and investigators, need to act.

RELATED: Dozens of immigrants at a New York facility are on a hunger strike over racist mistreatment

RELATED: ‘I was locked in for five days’: Officers wield solitary confinement to silence abused immigrants

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