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Immigrants Sue ICE Over Physical Assault and Racism at Orange County Jail

The lawsuit asks the court to declare that the alleged retaliation violated the First Amendment rights of detained immigrants

Current and former detained immigrants at the Orange County Jail in Goshen, New York, filed a lawsuit against U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Orange County officials on Tuesday, alleging retaliation for speaking out about harmful conditions and maltreatment at the facility. 

The complaint says that guards failed to provide necessary medication to those detained, physically assaulted some of the six plaintiffs, used racist language against them, and served spoiled food, among other allegations.

When the plaintiffs protested against these circumstances — including through media interviews, civil rights complaints, public testimony, and a hunger strike — they were met with retribution, according to the lawsuit. Some immigrants were transferred hundreds of miles away to detention centers in the South, where two of the plaintiffs still remain. Others were moved to a “segregated confinement” unit at the jail for months. One plaintiff says he was physically attacked by guards after speaking to the media. Through these actions, the immigrants suing ICE claim that officials violated their First Amendment rights. 

The lawsuit says that guards have told detained immigrants to “go back to their own countries,” called Black immigrants racial slurs, and told one of the plaintiffs that they “would have killed him” if they came across him at the border. 

One plaintiff witnessed retaliation against individuals who filed grievances, the lawsuit says, including guards putting immigrants in segregated confinement and reporting “alleged misbehavior” to the immigration court in order to harm their cases.

Among other force incidents detailed in the complaint, guards handcuffed, physically attacked and sentenced one of the plaintiffs, Luis Gonzalez Carbajal, to 14 days of “keeplock,” a form of segregated confinement, after he was the subject of a news article regarding conditions at the jail. 

Many immigrants detained at the facility were fearful of going public about the difficulties they faced inside, Nahum Ortiz, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said in an interview with Documented. “They were really harsh — they would punish you for no reason,” Ortiz said about the guards. “So if we were to speak out, we would think about it twice.”

Ortiz, 40, was held at Orange for about 17 months, starting in September of 2021, and was released from detention last month. At Orange, Ortiz said he often experienced racism and discrimination from the guards. According to the complaint, an officer once stopped someone from entering a room Ortiz was in and said: “There’s a Spanish dude in there. He might have a machete.” Ortiz described the food as “horrible,” and said he was not given medication he needed for back pain. Ortiz was also sent to the confinement unit, where he was often yelled at and cursed at, and denied recreation time. There, individuals were not allowed to make free calls to families for several months, the complaint says. 

Speaking to his family kept him hopeful inside detention, Ortiz said. He has a daughter in New York, and has lived in the state since 1998. But when that access was suddenly cut off, “that was the most hurtful thing,” he said. 

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Three organizations that work on immigrant rights — The Bronx Defenders, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and the New York Civil Liberties Union — filed the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York on behalf of the six plaintiffs, including Ortiz. All plaintiffs are currently being held at the Orange County facility or were released or transferred to detention centers in the South. 

The filings name the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Kenneth Genalo, the acting ICE field director for the New York City Office as some of the defendants. Paul Arteta, the current Sheriff of Orange County, Carl DuBois, the former Sheriff of Orange County, and Kenneth Jones, the former Undersheriff of Orange County, are also named as defendants. 

Jones was a member of the Oath Keepers, a far-right militia group, in 2013 and 2014 while he was undersheriff, according to the lawsuit. In an interview with the Times Herald-Record published in March of 2022, he called some of the abuse allegations from detained immigrants “completely outrageous.”

The lawsuit filed Tuesday asks for a declaration from the court that the alleged retaliation was unlawful and violated the plaintiffs’ first amendment rights, and monetary damages for those harms. The lawsuit also requests an order from the court that the plaintiffs still held at the segregated unit at Orange be moved back with the general population, and that the plaintiffs who were transferred to the South be brought back to New York, closer to their families and immigration cases. 

The county “categorically denies that it acted in an unconstitutional or otherwise illegal manner. The County Jail is a highly credentialed and model facility,” Richard Golden, the attorney for Orange County, said in a statement. “The Plaintiffs’ lack of merit in their allegations will be proven in court,” he added. 

Marie Ferguson, a spokesperson for ICE, said that the agency does not comment on ongoing litigation.

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In a memo to ICE from August of 2022, the Department of Homeland Security Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL) summarized the allegations it received from inside the jail spanning from November of 2021 through April 2022. The office named seven complaints it received during that time period, which included allegations of inadequate medical care, “excessive use of force,” freezing temperatures, a lack of language services, and guards locking those who took part in a February 2022 hunger strike in their cells as punishment.

Last August, CRCL said it would have an onsite investigation in September of 2022. It remains unclear what the outcome of the investigation was. In the memo, CRCL said that as part of its “broad overall investigation,” the office would “examine the allegations summarized…to include a review of the provision of mental health care and environmental health and safety.”

CRCL also said the office would be reviewing the jail’s “operations more generally to address any systemic concerns including policies related to COVID, suicide prevention and intervention, use of force, grievance system, and food service, as well as other areas of the facility’s operations that often raise important civil rights and civil liberties issues.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York and the New York State Attorney General’s Office have both previously inquired about the conditions at the jail, according to the lawsuit.

Amy Belsher, a senior staff attorney at the New York Civil Liberties Union who is the group’s lead counsel on the case, said that “the jail and ICE have largely ignored the complaints,” and that they “are not going to hold themselves accountable,” she said. 

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Advocates like Belsher also hope to bring attention to the Dignity Not Detention Act, which is currently pending in the New York State legislature. It would require government entities to end all current and future contracts to hold individuals in immigration detention in New York — which would end the contract between Orange County and ICE.

“That hangs over a lot of what happened in this case, and this case is yet another reason to end that contract with ICE,” Belsher said. 

According to the complaint, ICE paid the Orange County Jail $4.98 million in 2021 to hold detained immigrants at the facility.

Adjusting to life has been challenging after Ortiz, who lives in Long Island with his father and uncle, was released from detention. He now has difficulty leaving the house, interacting with strangers, and traveling in cars. “I don’t even go out because I feel like I’m a target,” he said. 

Ortiz has a pending immigration case, and in the meantime, he is glad to join the lawsuit to fight for those who are still in detention. 

“I want OCJ — Orange County Jail — to know that I’m out, and that I’m looking out for those people and I’m trying to get them to have a better environment,” he said. “Something’s gotta change there because there’s too much discrimination, too much racism, too much abuse.”

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