Updated: 8:10 p.m.
The Citgo off the Batavia exit of the Thruway is a typical gas station: a convenience store with 10 gas pumps. It doubles as a Greyhound bus stop.
It’s also the drop-off point for people just released from the nearby detention center managed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.
Matt Thompson has seen it happen over and over since he started working at the station four months ago.
“The way they treat them, I don’t agree with,” the 20-year Army veteran told Investigative Post. “They drop them off and they treat them like animals. They kick them out of the van, pretty much, and that’s it.”
Immigrants, he said, are treated with less respect than is typically afforded prisoners released from local jails or the Attica Correctional Facility.
“Some of those people are in jail for actual crimes. But when they get dropped off, they get treated like regular human beings,” he said. “Why can’t people from the ICE center get treated the same way?”
There’s no bus shelter at the gas station. Before the pandemic, Thompson offered people a place to sit in the store. But after Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued a social distancing order, the store stopped allowing people to linger inside. The situation now troubles him more.
April 13 was particularly difficult, he said. Winds topped 20 miles per hour. The temperature was in the low 40s. Rain drizzled throughout the day. He stood dry inside while four just-released detainees were left outside, leaving Thompson distraught.
ICE’s coordination with an immigrant’s family or their attorney is chaotic or non-existent, lawyers and other advocates told Investigative Post.
ICE routinely drops people off after the two early morning buses have departed the Citgo station, forcing the detainees to find other transportation or wait almost a full day for the next bus, said Thompson, who served tours of duty in Iraq and Kuwait. Sometimes detainees are released without enough money to buy a ticket.
The treatment of released detainees was brought to the attention of Western District Judge Lawrence Vilardo during a hearing earlier this month.
“It’s almost inhuman to release them the way they were released,” Vilardo said. “It’s outrageous.”
It also could be dangerous to public health, said Martin Moore, the Batavia city manager.
“If an individual is potentially a carrier, or infected, there’s risk to those around them,” he said. “If that person is not infected, there’s a potential risk to them.”
ICE manages the facility
The Buffalo Federal Detention Facility is located less than a mile from the gas station. It’s one of about 25 immigrant detention centers ICE manages around the country. In Batavia, ICE contracts with a private company, AGS Inc., to provide security staff.
Jeffrey Searls is the facility’s administrator. ICE’s field office director for the region is Thomas Feeley.
ICE officials did not respond to numerous inquiries from Investigative Post seeking comment for this story.
Hours after this story published, ICE released a statement that it attributed to Feeley.
“The suggestion that ICE would abandon people upon their release is unfounded and is a clear fabrication that takes away from the professionalism of the men and women that work at the facility. ICE detainees who are bonded out of custody at Batavia are transported to an area transportation hub at no cost. If they are unable to cover the costs of transportation to their final destination, the agency will cover the costs. Detainees are transported to the transportation hub consistent with existing route times and schedules. The agency routinely coordinates detainee releases with family members and attorneys.”
Attorneys and other advocates for released detainees described a much different scenario, however.
Gambini interview on WBFO
The detention center is built to hold 650; the population these days is about 320. Detainees and advocates have warned about unsafe conditions inside the facility and 49 have tested positive for COVID-19, as of Tuesday. Only one of the other 25 detention centers managed by ICE has more infected detainees and the jails it contracts with.
Those incarcerated in Batavia are held on civil, rather than criminal, charges; they’re accused of violating immigration law. Their fate, often deportation, is determined by a federal administrative law judge.
Some detainees overstayed their visa. Others presented themselves at a border without proper documents and asked for asylum. Still others were here legally but subsequently charged with a crime. Forty-eight percent have no prior criminal history, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.
At least three detainees have been released in recent weeks. The trio were all part of a federal lawsuit filed last month seeking the emergency release of 23 detainees held in Batavia. Their attorneys argued their medical status or age put them at risk of severe complications from the COVID-19. The detainees were released by ICE for unspecified reasons.
One detainee’s story
One detainee released by ICE earlier this year, after the pandemic hit, is a man of African descent who was picked up in 2018 with an expired visa, the travel document that legally allows foreign citizens an extended stay in the U.S.
While here, the man was notified there was a warrant for his arrest in his home country. He was outed as gay, and that’s illegal there. The penalty: a lengthy prison term. So he began to research applying for asylum. In order to protect himself from potential harm or retribution, he spoke to Investigative Post anonymously.
He was detained by ICE three months after his visa expired. He could not afford an attorney for most of the two years he spent at the Batavia facility.
Though he speaks fluent English, navigating a byzantine legal system proved difficult. He was demoralized by losing his appeals, he said. His confinement was made worse by the time it left him to wonder where he might end up.
“It’s a very, very traumatic experience,” he said.
Gambini talks about his story on WBEN
Then one day a guard called his bunk number. The guard told him to register an address where he would go if released. He thought it was a dream or a joke, he said. Even when told to pack, he remained skeptical. Perhaps a transfer to another facility, he thought. Two hours later he was loaded into a vehicle and driven to the gas station.
The circumstances of his release didn’t make a deep impression on him, he said. He was too happy to be out.
“Even if it means walking all the way to Buffalo or to anywhere you are going, I think it’s better than going back to that place,” he said. “You have your freedom.”
Or something close to it. He wears a GPS ankle monitor while he awaits a decision on his appealed asylum claim. It’s his last shot before likely deportation.
Good samaritans help
The practice — dumping released detainees at bus stations — is not unique to Western New York. In Phoenix, AZ, Greyhound stopped allowing U.S. authorities to drop people inside its bus stations. ICE said it would drop them off outside.
In Arizona, an underground network of volunteers has assists those released by ICE. Locally, a similar network has sprung up around the Batavia facility.
Attorneys know to wait around the gas station, as do advocates. Together and separately, they help coordinate travel and lodging for the newly released detainees.
One of the groups, Los Samaritanos, is a discreet band of 15 people from Genesee County who became aware of ICE’s practice about a year ago. They have assisted 40 to 45 individuals released from the facility.
Jim McCann, a pseudonym he said was a precaution due to the area’s conservative nature and the inflamed national dialogue around immigration, is a member. The rest come elsewhere around the county, many from churches.
McCann called the Samaritanos a coalition of “people with empathy.” They offer former detainees a ride, a bite to eat at a local restaurant, or sometimes a hike.
Using donated backpacks, they hand out what they call “dignity bags” to the people they help.
Inside the bag are toiletries, socks, a snack, a coat if it’s cold, a manila folder for their paperwork, feminine hygiene products for the women, and now, with the onset of the pandemic, masks.
McCann is critical of the U.S. immigration system as a whole. ICE’s release practice adds to his frustration.
“Why would you do that to a human being? They treat animals better than that,” he said.
The group coordinates with Justice for Migrant Families WNY, led by Executive Director Jennifer Connor. Connor and fellow activists have picked up a number of people from the gas station and helped out in other ways. Connor said to the best of her knowledge, all but two detainees released from the Batavia facility in the past two years have been dropped off at the gas station.
Bob Graziano, a Buffalo-based immigration attorney, said the ICE drop-offs are bad under normal conditions and that much worse during the pandemic.
“Now with this virus and all of the very serious risks involved, the fact that they are still releasing people without any plan for how they are getting to wherever they have to go is both shameful and dangerous,” he said.