City Council bill would restrict ICE

December 2, 2011 § Leave a comment

Ragbir

Ravi Ragbir is an advocate for immigrant inmates at Rikers Island facing detention and deportation. Photo: Courtesy Ravi Ragbir, Change.org

By Marianna Nash

A bill introduced in the New York City Council and gaining traction could change how immigrants are detained after arrests. Resolution 656, co-sponsored by 38 council members, would prevent New York City’s Department of Corrections (DOC) from sharing information about some inmates with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Its objective is to reduce the number of illegal immigrants deported  — granting stays for those without convictions, including misdemeanors. The bill includes exemptions for cases that are deemed to pose a threat to national security or public safety.

“It’s a huge first step, but it is only a step,” said Daniel Coates, an activist with Make the Road New York, who is trying to get Rikers Island to stop giving information about inmates to immigration authorities.. “What it does is if you are somebody who has no criminal record and you’re found innocent, the city will protect you — but if you have a criminal record and are found guilty of a crime, misdemeanor or felony, it does not distinguish, and the city won’t protect you.”

Coates isn’t the only activist who believes that convictions for minor, nonviolent crimes should not be used to deport individuals.

Ravi Ragbir has never been held at Rikers Island, but he took up the cause of immigrants being held there after he was detained at an Alabama detention facility.

The 15-year green card holder has a relatively serious mark on his record — wire fraud, which is a felony. But he maintains that people like him should be allowed to make amends as long as their crimes are nonviolent. He has served his time.

Ragbir arrived in New York in 1991 from Trinidad and Tobago on a visitor’s visa. He now works with The New Sanctuary Coalition of NYC as a community organizer, campaigning on behalf of New York’s illegal immigrants. But many of the immigrants he meets are surprised to learn that he, too, is currently facing possible deportation.

He was convicted of wire fraud, resulting in two-and-a-half years of incarceration in Brooklyn. Two days before that sentence was to expire, ICE notified Ragbir that a “detainer,” or hold, had been placed on him. That meant he would be held another year.

This time, he would not be in a jail cell, but in an ICE detention facility in Alabama.

“It was horrible,” he said of his time there. “Immigrants are treated horribly. When you are faced with criminal charges you have rights.”

Of the foreign-born inmates transferred from local jails and prisons to ICE facilities, 49.3 percent had no prior convictions on their record in 2009, according to Department of Corrections statistics for that year. Approximately 3,000-4,000 inmates are transferred from the these facilities  to ICE each year as part of ICE’s Criminal Alien Program (CAP).

According to ICE’s website, CAP is a program that effectively helps to deport criminals. “[The program] was created to prevent criminal aliens from being released into the general public,’’ the website says “The program secures a final removal order, prior to the termination of criminal aliens’ sentences, whenever possible.”

The program allows ICE agents to maintain a presence at Department of Corrections  facilities, interview  inmates, share inmate database information with ICE (including place of birth) and honoring immigration detainers placed on inmates by ICE for up to 48 hours.

New York University Associate Professor of Law Alina Das, who is also Ragbir’s attorney and a member of NYU’s Immigrant Rights Clinic faculty, says that CAP actually has an adverse effect on public safety.

“Immigrants don’t feel safe coming forward as victims, as witnesses, when they know that there is a very strong likelihood that they will be handed over to immigration officials,” Das said.

“What we want to see is a policy that affects a lot more people,” said Ragbir. “Even people who have prior convictions should not continue to be penalized. The person is now a productive member of society. He’s a father to someone, a friend to someone else. They have learned from their mistakes and they are working hard to overcome that time in their life.”

The Bloomberg administration voiced their support for the bill after initially opposing it.

“The issue is about striking a balance between public safety and national security, and ensuring that this city remains the most immigrant-friendly city in the world,” said Mark La Vorgna, a spokesperson for Mayor Bloomberg. “And this legislation does strike that balance.”

Councilmember Dan Halloran (R-Queens), one of two Republicans who supported the bill, said he voted for it once he knew that inmates with misdemeanors as well as felonies on their records would be deported.

“On the one hand, obviously anyone in this country illegally who commits crimes should be dealt with very harshly,” said Halloran. “With the civil detentions, however, the problem has very often been something as simple as not being able to verify immigration status right away. That has caused people to be detained weeks and months without any recourse, and that’s a civil rights issue.”

The legislation came about last year when Make the Road New York approached Councilmember Melissa Mark-Viverito to discuss the hardships illegal immigrants face after being held at Rikers Island for minor crimes and deported to their home countries. An oversight hearing was held last year in November.

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