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Commentary: Steps New York can take to improve immigration system

By: Zach Ahmad Senior Policy Counsel, Policy & Rosa Cohen-Cruz Immigration Policy Director, Bronx Defenders

When President Joe Biden entered the White House, there was renewed hope we might finally fix our country’s broken immigration system, curtail its cruelty, and put millions of immigrants on a path to citizenship. But more than one year later, and after repeated attempts at modest reforms have failed, that optimism has dimmed.

There are more people in immigration detention now than there were in the final weeks of the Trump administration. And Biden’s Department of Homeland Security has expelled more than one million people over the past year, using some of the cruelest tools dreamed up by the previous administration to do so.

It’s clear we can’t count on politicians in Washington to fix this mess any time soon. Our state leaders must take matters into their own hands to make sure all New Yorkers can live in peace and safety, regardless of their immigration status. Two key pieces of legislation — New York for All and the Dignity Not Detention Act — can take us in the right direction.

We can start by keeping New York out of immigration enforcement. Everyone, regardless of immigration status, wants to participate in their communities, provide for their family, and access health care without living in fear. The New York for All Act helps make this possible, by prohibiting all local law enforcement and state agencies from conspiring with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Patrol.

Regardless of which party controls the White House or Congress, we have seen some of our leaders use ICE to divide us. In Rensselaer County, for example, the sheriff has deputized his officers to act as ICE agents. This collusion with ICE started under President Donald Trump and it continues under Biden.

Many immigrant New Yorkers and their families live with the anxiety that going about daily life in the open and interacting with the government — whether talking with a police officer, attending school, or visiting a public hospital — could lead to being torn away from family.

New York for All addresses this fear by broadly prohibiting state and local officers from enforcing federal immigration laws, funneling people into ICE custody, and sharing sensitive information with federal immigration authorities.

But in addition to extricating our state from immigration enforcement, we should also prevent state and local governments from propping up and profiting off of detaining immigrants.

Under Trump, immigration arrests expanded significantly and led to an unprecedented growth in the number of people locked up for immigration cases. This escalation in detention has continued under Biden, and New York plays a role in its perpetuation.

For years, ICE has contracted with county jails across the country to detain immigrants in its custody, effectively outsourcing the responsibility of detaining immigrants in removal proceedings to local governments.

In counties like Orange, Rensselaer, and others across the state, ICE counts on local jails to warehouse immigrants. Conditions inside immigration detention facilities are notoriously poor, with reports of sexual abuse, denial of health care, and unsanitary conditions. In Rensselaer County, people have reported they were denied showers, health care, and access to basic sanitation. Many report retaliation after complaining about conditions.

If we want an immigration system that works, we need to reduce the capacity of immigration detention and force policymakers at the federal level to provide real solutions. The Dignity Not Detention Act would effectively end ICE detention in New York. It would prohibit new contracts, renewals, and expansions and it would require counties to terminate existing contracts with ICE.

While we wait for leaders in Washington to reform the immigration system and provide a roadmap to citizenship for immigrants across the country, we cannot allow our state to be a part of the problem. We must take steps now to ensure New York works for all of us.

This op-ed was originally published in the Times Union.

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