Police Accountability Series Part Six: Detained Immigrants Find Assistance In Albany County Jail

Dec 15, 2018

For the final installment of WAMC's weeklong series on law enforcement in our communities, we now take a look back at how the national immigration crisis arrived at the Albany County Jail and the surge of community support that stepped forward to do what the federal government would not.

Inside the visitor’s area of the Albany County Jail, small rooms – each with a table and a couple chairs – line one wall. It’s here where attorneys can talk with clients in a more private setting.

On a December morning, as snow falls outside, immigration attorney Michelle Born works with an immigrant detained by the federal government at the Albany County Jail. It’s her first time in the facility.

After bidding goodbye to the client, Born, who works with the New York Immigration Coalition, comments on the culture inside the jail. She says it’s different than her experience with the Bronx Defenders working with immigrants in jails downstate and in New Jersey.

“Even in the first 10 minutes, it feels just so different from my experience there, whereas attorneys, it felt like an incredibly antagonistic relationship,” said Born.  

The Trump administration’s immigration crackdown has overloaded detention centers and the court system. It’s caused the federal government to temporarily hold migrants in facilities across the country.

This summer, more than 300 people arrested at the southern border were transported to the Albany County Jail through an agreement between the Department of Homeland Security.

That created a challenge for volunteers who aimed to assist the migrants. But Camille Mackler, Director of Immigration Policy at the New York Immigration Clinic, says she is proud of the progress that’s been made in just under six months’ time.

“It has forced us to rethink and challenge ourselves and work together in ways we’ve never done before and we’re all going to be stronger and better off for it in the long run,” said Mackler.

Speaking in July, Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple said he was originally expecting to take around 150, maybe 200 migrants into the jail.

“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.”

At its peak, the jail would eventually board about 340 migrants separate from the general inmate population.

Before taking in the immigrants, Sheriff Apple knew he had tools in place to assist them.

Years before, Apple explained, he had had help from the woman who helped spearhead the community effort to assist immigrants in the jail.

“About four years ago I met this young lady named Sarah Rogerson. And we talked about some of the immigrants I had in the jail and what we could do with them, because they really just sat there. So Sarah put a team together and Sarah started coming into the facility to help them, whether it was a family court proceeding or it was a matter of  helping them stay in the country, or finding family, whatever the case may be. And Sarah started to…we built this program.”

Sarah Rogerson is an Albany Law professor and Director of the Immigration Law Clinic and Law Clinic and Justice Center.

After the Albany arrivals, Rogerson, through Albany Law, teamed up with the Legal Project, the New York Immigration Coalition, and a team of volunteers to assist the migrants at the county jail. It was named the Albany Jail Detention Outreach Project.

Hundreds asked how they could help. Before a standing room-only crowd at a July training session, Rogerson explained to the volunteers that they would be working in the jail to triage the immigrants – finding out who they are and where they came from.

“The information you’re gathering and the timeliness with which you submit it to us is critical,” said Rogerson. “Because within 24 hours, we see an intake and there’s a child that’s been separated and the parent doesn’t know where that child is, we are immediately contacting the national groups to plug them in and find those families.”

Over the next few months, the volunteers learned that more than two dozen individuals brought to the jail had been separated from family members. While the migrants being held in Albany had been transported from the southern border, they originated from 19 different countries. Translation help was needed.

Shanza Masih, who speaks Punjabi and Urdu, was one of the dozens interested in serving as an interpreter.

“It’s a great opportunity and that it’s nice that they’re  reaching out to so many people who are in need and these people are vulnerable and it’s just really great that the community…so many people are coming together to help out,” said Masih.

The volunteer interpreters and attorneys would assist asylum seekers with preparing for what’s called a Credible Fear Interview. If a federal asylum officer finds the individual has a credible fear of prosecution or torture back home, the case is referred to an immigration judge for a hearing.

Hundreds of immigrants received legal assistance inside the Albany County Jail.

The federal government pays Albany County $119 per immigrant per day. Since last summer, the county has received more than $4 million.

By fall, Albany County legislators decided to reinvest some of that money.

Democratic Albany County Legislature Chair Andrew Joyce made the announcement from the rotunda of the Albany County Courthouse in November.

“We are going to be using the funds given to us by ICE through this Detainee Project and we’re using it to put legal resources and legal assistance in the jail directly with these individuals,” said Joyce.

$170,000 received from the federal government would be reallocated, to provide full-time legal services within the Albany County Jail. Joyce called the actions of the volunteers, the sheriff’s office, and local government a “push back” against national policies.

Standing beside Joyce, Sarah Rogerson, Camille Mackler and others, Sheriff Apple knew there could be some negative reaction from the community.

“Listen, people are going to come out when they see this story and they’re going to be like, ‘Oh my God, what are we doing? This is an immigration issue.’ But when you see men and women in their cells at night crying about violently being raped repeatedly during their travel to the border, if you have the smallest heart, you’re going to do whatever you can to help these people,” said Apple.

As the December snow falls heavier outside his office at the Albany County Jail, Superintendent Michael Lyons insists the things he, the sheriff, the staff and volunteers have done to board and assist the migrants are “not that heavy of a lift.”

“It doesn’t really matter if you’re a Republican or a Democrat or a conservative or a liberal…you can usually meet in the middle on what’s right. And getting somebody a phone call who hasn’t spoken to their 16-year-old son and they don’t know where they are, that’s not some farfetched crazy idea. It’s what you should do. So, those are the kinds of things that we…but those things make a difference.”

At the time of our interview, there were about 40 immigrants waiting inside the jail.

Lyons can’t predict if or when the facility will receive a new wave of immigrants. But downstairs in the visitor’s area, Camille Mackler says the past few months have changed Albany County.  

“It’s sparked something here that is going to have such long-lasting effects. It sparked something in the Capital Region in terms of understanding the needs of our immigrant neighbors and the gaps in the services and getting us to think outside the box and creatively because we didn’t have a choice,” said Mackler. “It was either think outside the box or get overwhelmed by a need that we have never faced before. And all of that is going to grow into something that’s going to be so much more long-term and sustainable and actually be a positive impact for our communities.”