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November 12, 2014

My Eye-Opening Visit to an Immigrant Detention Facility

Guest blog by Careen Shannon, Of Counsel at Fragomen LLP

We had been warned about the awful smell outside the detention center, though we were also told that it probably wouldn’t be too bad on this cool autumn day. I still wasn’t prepared for what hit me.

As soon as the detention facility director opened up the heavy metal door to let us out into the concrete recreation area, I almost choked as I found myself inhaling a thick, malodorous vapor. It felt soupy and metallic in my mouth and throat, and the foul-smelling fumes coated the inside of my nose with a putrid, chemical residue that stayed with me long after the five minutes we spent outside. This certainly wasn’t the place to go for a dose of fresh air, and I couldn’t imagine wanting to exercise out there.

I was just glad it wasn’t July, when the stench is said to be even stronger.

This October I was invited to join a small Human Rights First delegation, ably led by Human Rights First’s Refugee Representation Staff Attorney Andrea Guttin, on a visit to a facility where immigrants in removal proceedings are detained while awaiting their day in court. I’ve practiced immigration law for more than 20 years, originally inspired by years of living and traveling abroad, as well as experiences volunteering in refugee camps in Southeast Asia and representing asylum seekers in an immigration clinic during law school.

But I detoured into business immigration law fairly early in my career, and have therefore had little experience working with persons facing removal. And apart from participating in one “Know Your Rights” presentation for immigrants held at the Varick Street Detention Center in Manhattan, I’ve had no experience working in a detained setting.

For these reasons, I jumped at the chance to visit the Delaney Hall Detention Facility in Newark, New Jersey. Though detainees in this minimum-security facility supposedly have regular access to the outdoor recreation yard, on that day there were only two women in their yard, and no men in the much larger men’s yard. Instead, the men were either quietly sitting on their bunk beds or on the floor in their dorm-like rooms, or silently watching a soccer game on a television in an open lounge area. Most of the women were in their rooms. Many were sleeping—in the middle of the day.

Beyond the tall fences topped by barbed wire, the source of the awful smell was evident. Located in a desolate area of Newark, Delaney Hall is surrounded by a stereotypical New Jersey skyline of industrial smokestacks, and lies just two blocks from a sanitation plant.

A quick look at Google maps shows other possible sources of the stench, including another private sanitation corporation, a regional sewerage commission, enterprises engaged in auto recycling and wrecking, and a number of companies with words like “chemical” and “industries” in their names.

Under contract with Essex County, which in turn has a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Delaney Hall is run by the misleadingly named Community Education Centers (CEC), a private, for-profit prison company. Delaney Hall currently serves as a detention facility for foreign nationals—currently mostly Central Americans who were recently apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border or nearby international airports. 

These people are not criminals. They are not incarcerated due to convictions for violent crimes or drug smuggling or the like. Instead, they have committed the civil infraction of seeking to enter the United States without authorization. 

Make no mistake about it: despite benign-sounding words like “community” and “education” and “center” and “facility,” Delaney Hall is essentially a prison. Detainees wear jail-like uniforms. The drab hallways are patrolled by guards (though I believe they were called “counselors”). The so-called law library is a closet-sized room consisting of a computer terminal with an unusable CD-ROM-version of Lexis, a handful of irrelevant law books, and a bulletin board with tattered lists of legal resources mostly out-of-date, inaccurate, or both.

Detainees wishing to contact anyone outside may only do so by placing a collect call. Personal items must be purchased, at inflated prices, through the commissary, using money deposited by friends or family members into the detainee’s account. Those who opt to fight boredom by working are paid one dollar per day, unless they work in the dining hall; in that case, they get an extra helping at lunch. The detention center director communicated this to us with a distinct sense of pride.

Delaney is supposedly one of the better facilities detaining immigrants in the United States. Readers uninformed about the federal government’s detention bed mandate for immigrants, or about its policy of detaining even asylum seekers who have fled their home countries in fear for their lives, or about the abusive conditions in many immigrant detention facilities (which are often local jails, where immigrants are held alongside hardened criminals), should read up on Hutto and Krome, on Artesia and Karnes, and on how the for-profit prison industry is profiting handsomely from these policies. Read it and weep.

When I first decided to go to law school, with the ambition of working in the field of international human rights law, I imagined someday being able to join poll-watching delegations in emerging democracies, or fact-finding missions in far-away lands plagued by human rights abuses. One month ago, while touring the Delaney facility, I was reminded that these problems are a reality right here in America.

The men, women, and children who are held in immigration detention across the United States deserve a fair chance at justice. Without legal representation, their chances of prevailing in their removal proceedings are slim to none. With a lawyer to shepherd them through our convoluted immigration system, those odds increase dramatically. The legal community has stepped up to the plate by providing pro bono services to the many Central Americans who are now trapped in detention, having fled horrific violence at home. We need to keep stepping up. And we need to show those in detention that America really can be the Land of the Free, even if it doesn’t currently look that way from inside the Delaney Hall Detention Facility.

Careen Shannon is Of Counsel at Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Loewy, LLP (“Fragomen”), resident in the firm’s New York office. She is currently leading the firm’s nationwide initiative to provide pro bono representation to unaccompanied immigrant children from Central America.