New York City Can Do Better to Protect All Immigrants

12/06/2013 05:28 pm ET | Updated Feb 05, 2014

Dear Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio,

As Families for Freedom celebrates 11 years of fighting for family unity, we applaud your stance and look forward to helping you create a "safer and more accessible" New York City for all immigrants. At the same time, we are concerned that while you consider ending Immigrant Customs Enforcement (ICE) collaboration with NYC law enforcement agencies through federal detainer requests (an immigration request that asks law enforcement to hold non-citizens passed their scheduled release) in your immigration plan, there is a serious error that leaves out those convicted of "violent or serious felonies." Although excluding people with these convictions seems like a public safety measure, in reality many of these cases are layered with complexities and bias. Studies show that every stage of the criminal justice system (from stop and frisk, to legal representation, to sentencing) is racially biased against poor people of color. This is the same population caught up in the detention and deportation pipeline.

At Families for Freedom, direct experience is central to our work. We are a New York-based human rights organization comprised of immigrant families fighting detention and deportation often due to convictions. We also conduct "Know-Your-Rights" presentations, with our allies Immigrant Defense Project, for New York residents who are incarcerated in jails across the city. We are compelled to look for progressive solutions grounded by our experience.

If a detainer policy does not protect all New York residents, an immigrant father of U.S.-citizen children could be arrested in a dispute and due to a 20-year-old conviction would be handed over to ICE. He could then be detained and deported, even though he has a family and reintegrated into society.

New York City should be a leader in drawing a bright line between the criminal legal system and the civil immigration system. The best way to do that is to support policies that truly protect all residents and cease turning New Yorkers over to ICE.

New York must do better and protect all immigrants. Here are three reasons why:

  • The detainer is a threat to the safety of NYC immigrant communities. Given the city's historic and contemporary community of immigrants, a remarkable 60 percent of New Yorkers -- almost 5 million people -- are immigrants or the children of immigrants. Alarmingly, data shows that 60 percent of New Yorkers apprehended by ICE from October 2005 through December 2010 had detainers placed on them. The detainer is not only an insult to New York's story, but it also destroys New Yorkers trust in law enforcement due to fear that interaction with local police will lead to detention and deportation. As a result, people are less likely to report crimes or cooperate as witnesses, making it harder for police to keep our communities safe.

  • The detainer offends values of liberty, due process and justice. The detainer subverts our legal system's promise to protect us all equally under the law, stripping non-U.S. citizens of basic protections during their criminal proceedings. Immigrants tagged for deportation are routinely denied bail, jailed for longer and wrongfully disqualified from alternative release programs.

    The detainer channels non-citizens into an unjust immigration system that often denies the right to a bond, a government-appointed lawyer and a fair day in court. New Yorkers are immediately shipped to out-of-state detention centers, with limited access to lawyers, medical care, family, witnesses and evidence to defend them from poor living conditions and deportation.

  • People with convictions have paid their debt to society.Green Card holders, asylum seekers, undocumented people and other noncitizens with convictions are denied the right to family unity and reintegration into society. In the context of immigration, classifying some immigrants as "violent or serious" offenders often doesn't tell us the full story. The Immigration Policy Center describes the deportation specific category of "aggravated felony" as simply "an offense that Congress sees fit to label as such, [and] today includes many nonviolent and seemingly minor offenses." This category has grown exponentially since 1996 and includes a range of questionable deportable convictions. Detainers and subsequent deportation after a conviction result in banishment forever from our families and communities -- we are really speaking of life sentences. We believe that all people with convictions have the right to reintegrate into society and have the right to family unity, immigration status notwithstanding.

New York can do better. As New Yorkers we ask the city to use its resources properly. By protecting the rights of our most vulnerable residents, we will promote public safety, limit unnecessary costs and liabilities and hold New York City to the highest standard.

New York City must draw a bright line between the criminal legal system and the civil immigration system. We look forward to working with you to get us all there. We propose the following to be included in New York City's detainer policy:

• Refuse to allow ICE into New York City jails to look for people to deport
• Stop holding people for ICE once they have finished serving time for their conviction
• Use our resources to reunite New York families rather than to separate them