It's an immigrant nightmare that's become a daily reality at Rikers Island: People who have no criminal record and who are here legally are suddenly transferred into federal custody for deportation. Their due process rights are violated and they're sent to detention centers in faraway states, where they're subjected to inhumane conditions. Finally they are sent back to their countries of origin, devastating their families in New York and sending waves of anxiety through the entire immigrant community.
Today this is a sad fact of life at Rikers Island. But the worst part of the nightmare is that it doesn't have to happen. New York City has been turning people, including many innocent and lawfully present people, over to the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency as part of a strictly voluntary collaboration. The controversial Criminal Alien program, as it is known, could be ended tomorrow—and that's exactly what I'm calling on Mayor Bloomberg to do. New York has no obligation to hand people over to Rikers Island, in clear violation of their rights, and it's time for our voices to be heard on this outrage.
Under the program, some 3,200 New Yorkers have been funneled into ICE custody each year, then detained and deported. Nearly 50 percent of these deportees had no prior conviction at the time of their arrest. While the federal government has taken controversial and aggressive steps to deport immigrants, New York City should do better than to follow a misguided and overly broad program that destroys the lives of thousands of law-abiding people. Immigrant communities have been caught up in a vicious cycle of politics, punishment and deportation, and the horror stories are heartbreaking: New York detainees are being detained as far away as Texas and Louisiana, isolated from family and support. These centers have inadequate medical care, and those held in detention are subject to physical and mental abuse. Some 107 people died in immigration detention centers from 2003 to 2010.
It's bad enough that the human rights of these detainees have been violated. But the program is also costing New York tens of millions of dollars that, at a time of fiscal crisis, could be better spent. Under the Criminal Alien Program, the City must house prisoners at Rikers much longer than it normally would, because New York policy forbids anyone who might be sent into deportation proceedings from being released on bail.
The costs mount—and so does the toll on law enforcement. The City's program deters many in the immigrant community from coming forward and reporting crimes, knowing what the consequences of an arrest can be. In addition, databases used by the federal government to identify people for detention have been significantly flawed for years.
How can we expect to instill faith in fairness and justice in all communities when the government is so willing to ignore rights and use questionable data to deport people? For all these reasons, the City's voluntary partnership with ICE must end now. New York was built and shaped by immigrants, and we are a greater city as a result of people who come here for a better life from somewhere else, often at much risk to themselves. It's the last place you would expect to find a program that so undermines immigrant rights and dignity. Indeed, various cities around the country, such as Arlington, VA and Santa Clara, CA have chosen to end this harmful practice. Please join our campaign to end this program in New York City once and for all.