BUFFALO, NY – A federal judge on Friday evening ordered immigration judges to consider alternatives to money bond as well as a person’s ability to pay when setting release conditions for asylum-seekers detained at the Batavia Federal Detention Facility awaiting asylum hearings. The ruling comes after the New York Civil Liberties Union and the International Refugee Assistance Project at the Urban Justice Center successfully challenged the facility’s practice of indiscriminately denying parole and bond to asylum-seekers detained in this facility.
After the Trump administration took office, federal immigration officials at Batavia effectively stopped granting parole and bond, leaving dozens of people who fled violence and persecution to languish in jail. Federal district Judge Elizabeth Wolford ruled in November that asylum-seekers who had been denied parole were entitled to new hearings and that detainees held for six months or longer are entitled to a hearing before an immigration judge to determine whether they can be released on bond while they wait for their asylum cases to be resolved. Yet, in over a dozen hearings since then, immigration judges reviewing these cases have set prohibitively high bonds up to $15,000.
“Many of our clients fled for their lives and arrived penniless in America. For them, bond of $15,000 is as unattainable as a bond of $15 million. They remain incarcerated simply because of their poverty, said Aadhithi Padmanabhan, lead counsel and staff attorney for the NYCLU. “Judge Wolford’s decision is an important step towards ensuring that our immigration system treats rich and poor alike.”
Asylum-seekers make only one dollar a day working in the Batavia facility, hardly enough for a short phone call to relatives or lawyers, much less to pay thousands of dollars for their freedom. As a result of the high bond amount set, some are forced to enter into exploitative arrangements with the bond industry which will keep them in debt for years while still others remain in custody for prolonged periods because they cannot raise the funds to post bond.
“After coming to this county and declaring their need for refuge, asylum-seekers in civil immigration proceedings should not continue to be locked up because of their inability to pay for freedom,” said Christopher Dunn, associate legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “This ruling is a clear reminder that due process applies to all people in America.”
In her rulings on this case, Judge Elizabeth Wolford has recognized the severe physical and psychological harms of prolonged detention, and how damaging incarceration is for people trying to prepare for their asylum cases.
“Being locked up prevents many asylum-seekers from adequately preparing for their asylum hearings, putting at risk their ability to stay in this country and prevent being returned to their home countries where they may face threats to their lives,” said Mariko Hirose, litigation director at the International Refugee Assistance Project. “Asylum-seekers detained at Batavia deserve a fair chance at freedom and safety.”
In addition to Dunn, Hirose and Padmanabhan, counsel on the case include NYCLU staff attorneys Robert Hodgson and Paige Austin, NYCLU legal fellow Scout Katovich, paralegal Andrea Barrientos and Data & Policy Analyst Michelle Shames; IRAP staff on the case include Staff Attorneys Deepa Alagesan and Kate Meyer, paralegal Casey Smith, and volunteer Sofia Calatrava.