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As Immigrants Wait At Albany County Jail, Volunteers Working To Learn Basics

Albany County Correctional Facility
Will Anderson
Albany County Correctional Facility

It’s been about two weeks since people detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement began arriving at Albany County Correctional Facility. Since then, hundreds of lawyers and volunteers have been working in the jail to find out basic information about the immigrants being detained.

Inside the Albany County Jail, where hundreds of immigrants arrested at the U.S. border with Mexico are being held, an army of volunteers is trying to find out who they are and where they came from.

One is Mary Lynch, a professor at Albany Law School. She says volunteers are triaging detainees with the help of interpreters.

“They don’t know what’s happening to them. They don’t know when they’ll see a judge or if they’ll see a judge. They don’t know what the current policy is and, frankly, I don’t know. I can’t tell them because it is not clear from the top what the policy is,” said Lynch. “So you see a local sheriff’s department that every guard, every person I spoke with, was really trying to help the lawyers be the eyes and ears on this problem that got dumped on them from the federal government.”

By Monday, 320 immigrants were being held at the county jail: 10 have been relocated in recent days. Prior to accepting immigrants from ICE apprehended at the southern border, Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple tells WAMC the 1,040-bed facility was at about half capacity.

“At the time, we were expecting maybe 150 to 200. I ended up taking the 300 because when you saw these individuals get off the plane your heart just about breaks,” said Apple. “Because they’re dirty, many of them are sick, many of them look like they’re starving. And I know in our jail, because we have a proven record of helping people, that we can clean them up, we can feed them, we have good medical, and we also have an excellent legal team.”

Albany County has teamed up with Albany Law School, the Legal Project, and a team of volunteers. It’s a collaborative effort spearheaded by Sarah Rogerson, Director of the Immigration Law Clinic at Albany Law School.

The attorneys have identified 16 individuals separated from family members, including eight separated from their children, with at least two still unaware of where their children are being held. Two were separated from siblings. Others were separated from their spouses or adult relatives.

This, says Rogerson, is not something that was communicated to the sheriff.

“In fact, quite the opposite. He was told by the Department of Homeland Security that none of the individuals in the groups that were coming to his facility were people who had been separated at the border and that’s just not true,” said Rogerson.

As triage work continues, Apple confirms that he is learning of some family members at the jail who have been separated. DHS did not respond to a request for comment from WAMC.

The immigrants, who hail from countries all over the world, are classified as low-level offenders. The attorneys and volunteers are using interpreters to find out where they came from.

Lynch, from Albany Law, said many of those apprehended are seeking political asylum and did the right thing by turning themselves in at an official checkpoint. Lynch says some waited up to two weeks to get through the checkpoint.

“And then the next thing they know, they’re separated from mothers, from aging mothers, from others in their family and they’re just…keep moving from place to place,” said Lynch. “One of the folks I spoke with had been in California, then he had been in Arizona – and this is just in two weeks – and now is in Albany. Another person that I spoke with has a U.S. citizen brother-in-law in California but now he’s in Albany County jail and who is going to visit him here?”

Before the large influx of immigrants, the Albany County Office of Immigration Assistance began making preparations. In addition to coordinating interpreters, attorneys from other county offices were brought in to assist at the jail, says Director Jim Millstein.

“There’s been a large number of attorneys from the public defender’s office, from the county attorney’s office and from other county departments as well who have offered to go out and conduct interviews,” said Millstein.

Millstein said the attorneys were prepared to communicate with the detainees from the southern border. They did not expect they would need interpreters on hand to speak with the immigrants who came from all over the world.

“There are people from China, from India. There are people from Russia, people from Ukraine, people from Angola, people from Sierra Leone, people from Cameroon, so having this much greater need for interpreters became, I think, one of the first things that we determined needed to be addressed so that all people could be eventually interviewed,” said Millstein.

Rogerson says more than 100 immigrants have been triaged in just over a week.

“Our goal is to have everyone seen in the next two weeks,” said Rogerson. “The next step, the Credible Fear interview prep, started last Friday.”

Rogerson is referring to the federal government’s Credible Fear Screening process for asylum seekers. Asylum officers will be coming to Albany County Correctional to interview each of the individuals who have expressed a fear of persecution.

Rogerson said group presentations on the Credible Fear Screening process have been given from experienced volunteers and law professors.

She believes the earliest one-on-one Credible Fear Interview preps will be held Wednesday.

Sheriff Apple said ICE told him to expect to hold the immigrants for up to six months.

“I guess it’s a lengthy process and I’m assuming because of the amount of immigrants incarcerated right now in the United States, the judges can only…the caseloads have got to be bursting out of the seams. So I really don’t know,” said Apple. “ICE could call me in a week and say ‘We’re sending a plane and taking a hundred.’ So I mean, if you think about the amount of money that they’re going to have to pay Albany County, and this is not a real big area, what’s going on with these some of these other areas that are holding thousands?”

As part of the agreement with Albany County, the federal government pays the county $119 per immigrant per day. With 320 detained immigrants, that amounts to more than $38,000 per day.

Sheriff Apple says his office doesn’t see that money and that it is directed to the county.

Apple, who is a Democrat, called the national immigration situation “a disaster.”

“Did you want to see them in a penned area, a tent city, a private prison? No. I took ‘em. Because I know I have a partnership with Albany Law. I know that I have a coalition out there that can give these folks the helps that they need. And you know, if they got to go back, they got to go back. That’s not for me to say. But while I have ‘em, we’re going to treat them humanely.”

The Legal Project has put out a call for more volunteers: interpreters of all languages and attorneys. In conjunction with Albany Law School, a training program for volunteers is set for Wednesday from 5 to 6:30 p.m. at 24 Aviation Road, NYS Forum, suite 206.

For more information email cric@legalproject.org or call 518-435-1770 x327.

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