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Locked Up

ICE Just Abruptly Moved Dozens of Immigrant Detainees From NY to Mississippi

The transfers came after immigrant detainees at the Orange County Jail in Goshen, New York, complained about rotten and unappetizing food, racial insults by guards, limited medical care, and a lack of access to their lawyers.

2:41 PM EDT on July 26, 2022

A screenshot of an ICE transfer order.

The ICE transfer order one detainee received.

For months, immigrant detainees at the Orange County Jail in Goshen, New York, raised the alarm about their conditions of confinement: rotten and unappetizing food, racial insults hurled at detainees by guards, limited medical care, and a lack of access to their lawyers, with a video-conference system constantly on the fritz.

According to lawyers representing people detained at the jail, guards consistently told detainees that if they continued to complain, they’d be transferred away from Orange County, which currently is the closest Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center to New York City. 

Early Monday morning, those threats came to pass: dozens of detainees, representing almost half of the jail’s population in ICE custody, were given 30 minutes to collect their belongings before being transferred to ICE detention centers in Natchez, Mississippi, and Batavia, New York, outside of Buffalo.

One of those people was Alex Jackman’s client, a man originally from a country in Central America who had been living in the U.S. for years, before he was arrested in May while going to work one morning. “I had a call scheduled with my client yesterday morning, and when I logged onto the system, it had been canceled,” said Jackman, an attorney at Legal Aid. “When I called Orange [County Jail] to ask why it was, they said he was no longer there and they couldn’t tell me where he was.” 

Jackman later learned that her client had been moved to the facility in Natchez, Mississippi. In 2021, the ACLU had asked the Biden administration to shut down the Adams County Detention Center, the jail in Natchez, after detainees alleged that they had been tortured and deprived of basic needs and medical care.   

After being informed by their clients about rumors that they might be transferred to places like Kansas City, attorneys like Jackman had asked ICE directly whether those rumors were true. In response, ICE denied the specifics of their accounts but did not deny that a transfer was imminent.

“Please be advised that Orange County Jail (OCJ) is not ‘set to close’, as your client apparently intimated to you, nor are we presently disposed to ‘end the contract’ with OCJ, nor are there any ICE detainees set to be transferred to ‘a jail in Kansas City,’” an ICE official wrote to an attorney who was asking about a possible transfer, according to emails obtained by Hell Gate. “To my knowledge, there is/are no detention facilities utilized by ICE in either Kansas City, Kansas nor in Kansas City, Missouri, for that matter.”

So why were dozens of people abruptly transferred? In a statement, an ICE spokesperson confirmed that  “on July 25, a number of detainees were transferred from Orange County Jail to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facilities in Mississippi and New York,” describing it as “part of a facility-wide reduction in population affecting all agencies that use the facility.”

The spokesperson also explained that the request came from Orange County to reduce the detainee population. When asked for comment, an employee with the Orange County Sheriff’s Office referred us to ICE. Orange County is on track to make $6 million this year from its contract with ICE, which began in 2008. 

Orange County jail has seen an influx of ICE detainees over the past few months, after ICE facilities closer to New York City were closed after advocates spent years organizing against them. Last year, Essex County in New Jersey ended its contract with ICE; Essex’s jail had held over 150 ICE detainees. Jails in Bergen and Hudson Counties in New Jersey soon followed suit, leaving Orange County jail and a private facility in New Jersey as the two options closest to New York City. 

With more New York City residents being detained in Orange County, conditions in the jail have been scrutinized in recent months; this past May,  New York City council members toured the facility after detainees launched a hunger strike. Advocates for those detained at Orange County have been calling on ICE to release detainees instead of transferring them to facilities that are even farther from home. (Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, ICE has used alternatives-to-detention far more frequently, releasing thousands of immigrants to be at home with their families, while being subjected to ankle monitors before their immigration court date.) But in an interview earlier this year, an Orange County undersheriff said that detainee releases, even under supervision, were “not going to happen, ever.”

Jackman got to briefly speak to her client on Tuesday afternoon. She wonders if this is all just part of an effort to wear immigrants down mentally, to the point where they might accept deportation. “He told me he was just feeling very defeated.”

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