Rev. Billy Takes on Immigrant Detention Centers

05/05/2009 12:53 PM |

More than 30,000 immigrants are incarcerated in the U.S. on any given day at these government-run and for-profit prisons, says Amy Gottlieb of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker-founded group “committed to peace, social justice and humanitarian service,” as per its website. The government pays an average of $90 per day per bed, she says. That’s about $3 million a day. Or $1 billion a year, much of it going to private contractors.

The detainees are kept in “conditions we wouldn’t even keep our domestic pets in,” Savitri D. says. Some of the women detained are not given clean underwear; for days or weeks, they have only the undergarments in which they were arrested. But the centers’ critics’ major contentions have to do with access to legal counsel, outdoor spaces and medical care — several detainees have died in the past few years while in custody, allegedly because they were denied medical care. (The Department of Homeland Security neglected to respond to several requests for comment for this article.) I.C.E. detains many immigrants in remote locations, far from their lawyers and families. Hundreds of detainees suffered food poisoning at a center in Washington State, according to the Associated Press. Gottlieb has heard reports of vermin infestation. The quality of the conditions varies by site; some are horrific, some decent — as jails go. They’re better than prisons in Haiti, Gottlieb says, “but they’re still jails.”

‘They Handcuffed Us and Dragged Us By Our Necks’


At Reverend Billy’s rally, Ravi Ragbir, a broad-shouldered Trinidadian with gray hair pulled back into a ponytail, takes the megaphone. He has been released recently, after two years of detention at various centers across the U.S., following a fraud conviction and deportation order, both of which he is fighting. He has been released as part of a new program that monitors immigrants using ankle bracelets and check-ins with a caseworker.

On his own detention center tour, the first stop was 201 Varick Street; he was soon transferred to a facility in Bergen County, N.J., where he spent nine months. He would be shuttled from there back to Varick because that’s where the immigration judges operate. Officials picked up him and other prisoners at 5am. Once there, 10 to 20 detainees would be kept in a single holding cell, where they would spend the entire day — until around 5pm — while each got a hearing in front of a judge.

“When you are in front of the judge, you are actually shackled, hands and feet together around the stomach,” Ragbir says. “This is a matter of, for example, bankruptcy. It’s not criminal. It is a civil matter. And you are shackled.” In an orange jumpsuit, to boot. “So right away everyone sees you as you are wrong.”

Ragbir saw Judge Alan A. Vomacka — “a really, really nasty guy” — whom the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals once removed from an immigration case for “an impermissible reliance on preconceived assumptions about homosexuality and homosexuals.” Vomacka denied almost 96 percent of the asylum cases he heard in the first half of the decade, one of the highest rates in the country, according to The National Law Journal. “He told my attorney, ‘shut up,'” Ragbir says.

In Bergen, Ragbir moved to an all-steel annex where the guards, more than once, shut off the air-conditioning. “Just to mess with us.” Once the air-conditioner broke for three nights. “This is a place without any air, no ventilation,” he says. “This is when it was summer. Ninety-something degrees out here. Can you imagine what it was in there?” The cell-doors were closed, cells the detainees shared with a fellow prisoner. Ragbir compared them in size to two of the concrete planters that barricade the Varick Street facility.

2 Comment

  • Henry,
    Thanks for this moving story on the injustce being perpetrated on immigrants. Rev Billy is a facinating character, and you’ve captured his essence.As Slade Cleaves aptly sang, “all of us are immigrants”
    Gary Johnson

  • This story really touched my heart..I guess there are good hearted people like Rev Billy who feel sympathy for illegal immigrants..not too many American do. They don’t understand all the hardships that they as well as their families go through. My sister’s boyfriend is being transfered to the Varick st. Facility after 9 months of awaiting in jail for his criminal case to be dismissed..thankfully it finally did. I wish there were something I can do to change all this disgusting unjust system towards illegal immigrants…people don’t know the humiliation my sisters boyfriend went through all these nine months…all the suffering his family has gone through…and now we continue to pray that he will hopefully not be deported ..my heart goes out to him as well as to all these innocent detainees to stay strong enough to face this unjust system that needs to be changed!!
    Vanessa