Fleeing poverty, gang assaults, and civil war in El Salvador, the Ortiz family came to the United States over 30 years ago with their young son, Nahum “Junior,” in tow. The family lived in Los Angeles for decades until moving to New York in 1998, and since then, Junior has lived in Long Island working as a welder, attending local college, and raising his young daughter.
That is, until the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) tore him from his family and threw him in Orange County Jail in Goshen, New York’s second biggest detention facility, for over a year and a half.
Several New York counties contract with ICE to detain people in local jails while they await resolution in their civil immigration proceedings, a process that can take months — sometimes years. The regular abuse, exploitation, and inadequate medical care that immigrants face while trapped in jail are particularly abhorrent at Orange County Jail. The jail has faced numerous complaints, lawsuits, and governmental investigations since it began detaining people for ICE in 2008. Since then, ICE and local law enforcement have subjected the people detained there to physical assault and racism, denied people basic medical care, and served them rancid food. Filth runs rampant, and it’s often impossible for people to connect with their lawyers and families.
Guards ransacked people’s cells, confiscating and destroying personal belongings like blankets and clothing.
For years, immigrants detained at Orange County Jail, including Junior, bravely spoke out about the horrific conditions of their indefinite incarceration. They submitted formal complaints to federal authorities; provided New York City Council testimony; and contacted journalists, elected officials, and advocates. In February 2022, as conditions deteriorated, a group of detained people organized and put their own bodies on the line in a hunger strike.
ICE and local jail officials responded with brutal retaliation: guards ransacked people’s cells, confiscating and destroying personal belongings like blankets and clothing. They isolated the protestors, preventing them from communicating with their families and lawyers. Later, when the protestors continued their advocacy, the jail and ICE conspired to keep protestors silent. They threw many in an isolated, cramped punishment unit, and sent many over a thousand miles away to a facility in Mississippi — without warning, time to say goodbye to their loved ones, or the chance to coordinate with their lawyers.
Last month, the NYCLU, The Bronx Defenders, and the Center for Constitutional Rights worked with six plaintiffs who had all spent over a year suffering behind bars to sue ICE and Orange County officials. Retaliation against people advocating for humane treatment flagrantly violates the First Amendment, and every person detained at Orange County Jail must be able to exercise their rights without fear of punishment. The right to protest is not only fundamental, but potentially lifesaving for people trapped in detention facilities.
While the suit focuses on the Orange County Jail, the terrible conditions our plaintiffs experienced are endemic to ICE detention everywhere. New York can and should do its part to shrink the immigration detention system. The Dignity Not Detention Act has been sitting in the New York State Legislature for years. It would prohibit counties that have detention agreements with ICE from renewing their contracts, ban new contracts with ICE, make it unlawful to accept money for immigration detention, and prohibit private detention facilities from operating in New York. This would effectively prohibit ICE from housing detainees in New York jails — allowing people to finally live in dignity while they await the resolution of their case.
As ICE continues to lean on local law enforcement and government agencies to search for, arrest, and detain people, state leaders must instead stand up for our immigrant neighbors and fight for a more humane immigration system.
Only then, can all New Yorkers, like Junior, live with freedom, dignity, and respect.