The decision by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to close its 300-bed facility at Varick Street in Manhattan is of great concern to immigrant rights advocates and supporters of detention reform. The pending closure not only means imminent transfer of detainees, but may also result in overcrowding and displacement at transfer sites. Now should be the appropriate time for ICE to consider less expensive alternatives to detention and to undertake a case-by-case review of detained immigrants to determine who can be released under supervised parole.
On January 14, 2010 ICE released a press statement outlining its justification for closing the Varick Street facility - lack of outdoor space and the need to cut costs. Earlier this week, a coalition of community-based groups who support immigration and detention reform sent a letter to Secretary Janet Napolitano at the Department of Homeland Security asking for a timely release of detainees.
The closure of Varick Street detention center impacts not only the detainees currently housed there, but also those at the transfer sites. The proposed transfer will affect detainees already in ICE custody by increasing an already high number of transfers and expanding detention space in a jail that runs afould of various ICE standards. ICE will transfer New Jersey detainees from Husdon to Essex County Correctional Facility (Essex) and/or Monmouth County Correctional Institution (Monmouth) to accommodate the transferees from New York,
More importantly, each of these facilities has unique rules governing access to detainees. The arbitrary transfers make it difficult for relatives and members of the community to maintain communication with detainees and can impede detainees as they prepare their legal cases.
I addressed the Varick Street closing with Ms. Alina Das, Supervising Attorney of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at New York University School of Law. In an email exchange she noted, "As someone who has represented and worked alongside detainees at Varick and other jails, I have seen how detention and transfers wear people down, tear families apart, and make legal representation much more difficult, if not impossible, to sustain ... No one should remain in detention when he or she can be released."
This is particularly true when you consider that ICE does not accomplish its stated goals by closing the Varick Street facility. One of the transfer sites, Hudson, does not allow all detainees access to the available sheltered exercise space. Second, according to Detention Watch Network, the cost of ICE custody operations for 2009 totals $1.7 billion. Closing Varick Street will amount to a cost savings of less than 1%. Detention at Hudson, Essex, and Monmouth costs $100 per day/detainee. On the other hand, alternatives to detention cost as little as $12 per day.
Given the prevailing mood in Washington around budget cuts and spending, now is a good time for the Obama administration to trim spending, starting with detention costs.