Detention system often sends immigrants far away from family, friends, and legal help

By Deepti Hajela, AP
Saturday, June 19, 2010

Immigrant detainees moved miles from home and help

NEW YORK — In the space of days, Joey Wong left Long Island, spent a few hours in Pennsylvania, and landed in New Mexico, where he lived more than a year. He was in Louisiana last month, and is now likely heading back to New Mexico.

Wong, 32, in federal custody, has been moved as far as 2,000 miles from his family and the lawyer working to keep him from being deported to Nicaragua. He’s among thousands of immigration detainees who have been moved around the country, federal officials say, for reasons like bed availability or medical care.

Critics complain the moves are unfair because they interfere with detainees’ defense against deportation and separate them from their families. Immigration officials say they plan to implement a new transfer policy with those issues in mind.

“You get sent into the black hole of immigration detention,” said Janis Rosheuvel of Families For Freedom, an advocacy group. “Oftentimes your loved ones don’t know where you are, don’t know how to reach you.”

Wong and his siblings were brought to this country as children by their parents, desperate to escape years of fighting between government and opposition forces in Nicaragua.

In 2009 he was ordered deported by a judge in Texas because of his criminal record, misdemeanors including a drug possession conviction.

His New York attorney, Michael Kohler, calls the transfers “a nightmare.” At one point, Kohler didn’t know Wong had been moved to Louisiana until relatives told him days later — forcing the lawyer to scramble to prevent Wong’s deportation before a decision for rehearing Wong’s case could be decided. That rehearing has now been granted. Kohler is also trying to have the drug conviction vacated.

Officials with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement couldn’t comment on Wong’s case without his signing a privacy waiver.

Immigrant advocates say the government’s own data shows that in recent years, the majority of detainees have been transferred at least once. They can end up hundreds of miles away from friends, family and any resources, often with little warning. That makes it difficult, they say, for detained immigrants to mount a defense.

“Sending someone to an open bed that is thousands of miles away from their lawyer, witnesses they need to present at trial … it becomes an issue of fairness,” said Allison Parker, director of the U.S. program for the international advocacy group Human Rights Watch.

Such transfers are necessary because of the logistics of running a federal detention system that spans the country, said Phyllis Coven, acting director of the ICE Office of Detention Policy and Planning.

The government doesn’t always “have all the beds in the places we need them,” Coven said.

Other issues include availability of particular medical care for detainees, she said.

Coven said a new policy covering transfers would be implemented in the near future but didn’t specify a date.

“We’re trying to do them more thoughtfully,” she said, taking into account whether a detainee had family nearby or an attorney. She said transfers would still be made, but would be documented better, with notice for detainees’ lawyers within 24 hours.

ICE this week announced the softening of confinement conditions at nine immigrant facilities around the country to make them less prison-like, allowing immigrants wear their own clothes and celebrate holidays with visiting relatives.

Wong’s brother Wilfredo said the family has so far been able to visit him only once, in New Mexico.

“It has been very difficult for all of us,” he said.

Human Rights Watch in December released an analysis of government data the group obtained through a federal Freedom of Information Act request. The data show there were 1.4 million transfers of detainees from 1999 to April 2008, the most recent period for which information was available. Most of the transfers were between 2006 and 2008.

The number of detainees increased from under 150,000 held annually to more than 350,000 in 2008. Of those held in 2008, nearly 30 percent had been moved once, more than 14 percent moved twice, and 4 percent moved four or more times.

Geography can impact on an immigrant’s outcome, advocates said, especially their legal representation. While there are numerous immigration lawyers in New York City, there are far fewer available in small towns. And courts in some districts render tougher decisions than others.

Kohler said it was an ordeal representing Wong by telephone from New York when Wong was detained in New Mexico and had immigration hearings in El Paso, Texas.

Wong’s parents fled Nicaragua in 1985, during the conflict between the leftist Sandanista government and the U.S.-backed Contras.

A 1997 law allowed Wong’s parents to gain legal status, and Wong’s father then petitioned for a visa for his son in 2001. The application only recently became eligible for consideration, Kohler said.

Growing up in America, Wong ran into trouble: he has a juvenile offense, now sealed; three misdemeanors — including gun possession, for which he spent about six months in jail, and one for possession of half a marijuana joint — and for infractions like driving without a license, his lawyer said.

Kohler said the violations don’t prevent Wong from applying for legal status. Wong, who has worked construction and other jobs, is the sole financial support of his girlfriend, a 3-year-old daughter and a 1 1/2-year old son. He also has two older children in Florida.

“I’ve seen a lot worse, and these judges have seen a lot worse,” Kohler said.

But the judge ordered deportation. Kohler successfully appealed and a re-hearing of the case is pending, the lawyer said. He has also petitioned to have Wong’s drug possession misdemeanor vacated in New York City.

But Kohler has been doing most of this work from Long Island. There wasn’t enough money to send him to all court hearings, so he participated in most by telephone.

“It absolutely gets in the way,” Kohler said.

Wong, meanwhile, said he’s seen the impact of faraway detentions on other detainees.

“All that physically and mentally, it plays with your mind,” he said from New Mexico.

His own case has been difficult, he said.

“It’s very hard to win a case,” he said, “when your lawyer’s over there and you’re over here.”

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