Right now, the biggest population of people in the Hudson County Jail in Kearny are immigrants detained by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE): 607 people, according to official numbers.
Officials deny they are conducting raids in Hudson County for undocumented immigrants, but local police claim otherwise. They say ICE is pursuing people named on warrants, and that even if someone is not the person of interest, ICE agents may ask them for documentation and jail them if they don’t have it.
Once detained, the legal process to be released can be onerous and time consuming. Immigrants may be moved to different locations, where it’s harder for family members to reach them, and may have difficulties reaching an attorney.
The federal government has been involved in a political and legal battle over two executive orders signed by Donald Trump last month that go after undocumented immigrants and detain immigrants from certain countries who are seeking to enter the United States.
The biggest problem with illegal immigration is that nobody really knows what an “illegal immigrant” is. An undocumented immigrant could be someone with an expired visa or work permit, or a visiting family member of legal immigrants. They could be people trying to renew permits, or who got a work permit for one job, lost it, and are seeking permits based on their new employment.
Those on educational visas or who changed status and are seeking to legally alter their permits are also at risk of being detained.
Numbers on the rise
With the most recent crackdown by ICE, the numbers of people detained are on the rise. Hudson County Correctional Facility has gone from about 300 immigrant detainees in 2015 to more than 600.
Groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) help immigrants learn their rights, but in many cases, those who are detained or questioned do not have access to legal advice. In detention, immigrants often do not get the medical treatment they need even though they are not charged with any crime.
In some cases, detainees might be able to get out on bail. But the bail is so high, they often can’t raise the funds. The average bail is about $5,000. The lowest is about $1,500.
“Most detainees have no legal rights, and might be better off in a regular prison,” said Rev. Birgit Solano, pastor of the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Weehawken.
Many detainees are kept away from family, and sometimes they’re moved far from where a family can easily access them, and it is hard to keep track of where they have been moved.
“The system is set up to humiliate people,” says Lorna Henkel of Secaucus, a member of an immigrant rights group called First Friends. “Muslims do not get the privacy they require on the excuse of security issues. Fear is everywhere, and this is used to manipulate people.”
Need volunteers to help
First Friends NJ NY, based in Kearny, provides volunteers who visit detainees. But it does not give legal services or advice. Volunteers visit detainees, talk to them, give them writing materials, phone cards, and other things that might help them reach help beyond the walls of the jail.
“But we never have enough volunteers,” Henkel said. “We’re also looking for allies to help fight ICE, such as big companies like Amazon and Google, who have the clout to challenge the questionable legal methods it employs, and perhaps help get legal help.”
First Friends have been visiting people in the jails since 1999, but the number of people needing help is growing.
“What we’re trying to do is spread the work and get as many people to volunteer as possible, donate or help in other ways,” Henkel said. “We need more visitors, more money for phone cards and funds to buy postage and writing materials.”
You can reach them at FirstFriendsNJNY.org.
“There are a number of things that undocumented immigrants need to learn, such as never opening a door when an ICE agent comes.” – Lorna Henkel
Tension at the border
Border agents who review visa documentation for people arriving in the United States have serious power over who is let in, according to Henkel.
“They can use any excuse to deny you entry, even if you have a visa to get into the United States,” she said.
If you say the wrong thing, look the wrong way, or if the agent doesn’t like you for some reason you might not understand, you can get sent back. This practice has gone on unofficially through Republican and Democratic administrations.
The possible challenges are massive, often requiring immigrants to show where they will stay when they arrive, such as with family members or a host family.
Often border agents lack translators to help incoming immigrants, even in such basic languages as French or Spanish. The result is a lot of confusion, misunderstanding, and perhaps unjustified detention.
Immigrant advocates compare these restrictions to those imposed on incoming Jews prior to World War II, when the application process was so onerous as to make it nearly impossible to gain entry. Many Jews were turned away. Some perished as a result.
Many immigrants who come to the United States are seeking to escape violence in their home countries. Some even send their children to the U. S. in order to keep them from being forced to join violent gangs.
Some of these kids have little or no schooling, health issues, or face economic hardship.
Many end up in detention centers. New Jersey has four: Hudson County Correctional facility in Kearny, Bergen County Jail in Hackensack, Essex County Jail in Newark, and the largest, the Elizabeth Detention Center. Most detainees are held in Elizabeth, a privately-owned facility.
Some kids go to a residential center in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., formally a treatment center, which has been converted to a kind of detention center for underage immigrants. In some cases, once a juvenile turns 18, he or she gets transferred to jail facilities.
Detained immigrants get an initial hearing, which should be within a week or so, but may take up to two months. They must remain in detention until their issue is resolved.
Immigration courts nationwide hear more than half a million cases a year; one case might take more than a year to resolve.
Afraid to go home?
Some immigrants or refugees go directly from border agent to immigration judge without legal representation. Others wait for processing so long they agree to be deported, even though they may have a legal right to remain. Once they sign these documents, it is very difficult to keep them from being deported. Once deported, they cannot reenter the United States legally for 10 years.
When someone requests asylum fearing violence if they go home, they go through Expedited Removal. They undergo a “fear interview” to determine if their fears are justified. But even then the process has become so lengthy, people can spend weeks, even months, in detention before their case is settled.
There are only two options for leaving a detention center. If you are deported, you are driven by van to Newark Airport to be sent back to the country of origin, usually the nation from which you came from last.
If granted asylum at the Elizabeth Detention Center, someone opens a door, and lets you out onto the street, where you are left to your own resources, Henkel said.
“Some have little or no money, or do not have access to the money they might have brought with them, and must come back later to collect this,” she said. “Those who are granted asylum for other reasons are usually let out at around 9:30 at night. They might be given the name of local shelters or even the Seafarers International House.”
They are generally allowed one phone call. Some might even be allowed to buy food.
Some are told to spend the night at the airport, as in Steven Spielberg’s film “The Terminal.”
Some detainees, if they are lucky enough to get a job while in jail, earn a dollar a day that they are given when they leave, although they usually have to come back during working hours to collect it.
“Very few people are given asylum,” Henkel said. “Those who are often have to rely on groups that provide help such as church services.”
No one is really safe
So-called ICE raids often net legal immigrants, especially if the immigrant doesn’t have the proper ID at the time of the stop. The person is detained until he or she can produce proof.
In a national case reported in the press, one woman on her way to a family member’s graduation at Georgia Tech was stopped and detained, and by the time she was released, missed the ceremony.
“You have to carry ID with you all the time,” said Rev. Solano, who is a member of FirstFriends.
While the current trend is to detain anyone who is considered an illegal immigrant, some official bodies claim they are reporting only those charged with crimes or who have a significant criminal record, thus providing an excuse for deportation.
But often, activists claim, these immigrants are charged with petty crimes, minor offences such as possession of marijuana. Some are arrested for driving without a license.
“But this is often because employers need them to get to work, and this means they have to drive,” Henkel said.
Those who overstay their visas become targets for ICE. These people live in nearly constant fear of ICE, and are doing their best to stay clear of being in places where ICE might find them.
In some cases, they stop attending classes in schools that help immigrants get GEDS or will stay away from churches where they get services.
“There are a number of things that undocumented immigrants need to learn, such as never opening a door when an ICE agent comes to where they live,” Henkel said. “Make them put whatever paperwork they have under the door, such as a warrant.”
Even legal immigrants need to be careful, and must always have identification such as a green card or some other permit, so that ICE does not have an excuse to detain them.
“They are targeting the most vulnerable people with a campaign of fear,” Solano said. “They
wake you up in the middle of the night to make people afraid.”
While nearly anybody can be targeted by ICE, many of the victims are Hispanic, and many once detained can linger in a legal limbo since, unlike people charged with other crimes, they are not entitled to a court-appointed attorney.
While some get attorneys, thanks to family members and immigrant support groups, just as often immigrants do not. Some wind up with attorneys that do not specialize in immigrant law.
“Only about 15 percent see a lawyer,” Henkel said. “If they do not have a lawyer, they have slim chance.”
Some also fall victim to charlatan lawyers, who charge outrageous fees and often do little to justify them.
The Syrian refugee issue
Syrian refugees, who have become the focus of the Trump Administration’s ban, go through a two-year vetting process to make sure they don’t have terrorist aspirations. However, refugees fleeing from violence in their own countries are generally the least likely to be terrorists.
The fact that no Syrian refugee to date has been linked to terrorist activities in the United States suggests how successful the vetting process has already been, activists say.
“These are the last people who would be terrorists,” Solano said. “They’re immigrants; they want to start a new life, start their own businesses, want to get out and work and can’t wait to begin. They see this as the golden door to opportunity.”
Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop has said in the past that there are more than 80 Syrian refugee families in Jersey City.
Syrian these refugees often face serious hardships even after they’ve settled in the U.S.
“They are expected to get their lives together within three months,” Henkel said. “They get food stamps and medical cards for that long, and then they are expected to go off on their own, get a job and a home.”
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.