Local Volunteers Assisting 300-Plus Immigrant Detainees At The Albany County Jail

On June 26, Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple confirmed to the Times Union that immigrants detained by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) were being held at the Albany County Jail under contract with the federal government. At the time, more than 200 immigrants, 16 of whom had been separated from their families, were reported to be held in a special wing of the jail. Just two days later, on Thursday, June 28, nearly 100 more immigrant detainees arrived at Albany International Airport, maxing out capacity at the facility in Colonie and bringing the immigrant population at the jail to around 330.

Since then, officials at Albany Law School along with The Legal Project (a private nonprofit that was founded by the Capital District Women’s Bar Association in 1995) have been providing the detainees legal representation and access to translators. However, the volunteers been overwhelmed with the influx of new immigrant groups, some of which weren’t even aware or told where they were—or even speak Spanish. Though most are from the US-Mexico border, a large number speak a variety of different languages: French, Hindi, Punjabi, Mandarin, Polish and Russian.

Despite the assumption that all immigrants being detained are from Spanish-speaking countries, the influx of immigrants from a number of different countries isn’t all that unusual, says Professor Sarah Rogerson, Director of the Immigration Law Clinic at Albany Law School. “It’s not strictly an issue of South and Central Americans,” she says. “People fleeing violence all over the world will try to get to the western hemisphere however they can and then work their way up to the Untied States.” Rogerson says she’s spoken with immigrants in the Albany County Jail from Cameroon, Syria and Kyrgyzstan, among other countries. “What’s really happening is that people are getting an up-close look at what the border actually looks like. It’s not just the rhetoric that politicians sling around. It’s really a border zone that’s very complex.”

What is unusual, says Rogerson, is the treatment of many of these immigrants. The vast majority are asylum-seekers, which has specific legal requirements under US and international law (and is different than just crossing the border to have a better economic future). Asylum-seekers usually flee their home countries under fear of violence or death and must physically present themselves at a legal port of entry. What follows is a Credible Fear Screening (a test to determine if someone has credible fear of persecution or torture from his or her home country), a court date, multiple background checks and a very lengthy and competitive application process. Even after all this, which can take months or years, an immigrant can still be denied asylum. However, it’s atypical for asylum seekers to be flown hundreds or thousands of miles away from where they entered illegally or, in the case of some at the Albany County Jail, transported away from legal ports of entry. On top of this, the vast majority of the detainees in the facility in Colonie still haven’t received their Credible Fear Screening, which is necessary for determining asylum status in the US.

Rogerson and other lawyers from Albany Law School have just launched the second phase of their project: one-on-one consultations to better prepare immigrants for their Credible Fear Screenings, which will be conducted here in the Capital Region. Rogerson’s quick to note that these interviews can be intense and personal: “Imagine if part of your Credible Fear Claim involved sexual assault. That’s not something you’re necessarily going to tell a stranger from a new government authority.”

If you are an attorney or interpreter interested in volunteering your services, email [email protected] or call 518-435-1770 ext 327.

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