Our Voices

Dispatches from Detention: Detaining the Elderly and Infirm

Dispatches from Detention shares stories of people encountered by RFK Human Rights attorneys in legal outreach trips to the country’s most isolated immigration detention centers. Names have been changed to protect privacy.

Buffalo Service Processing Center, Batavia, New York

March 2024

Pierre, a 63-year-old man originally from Haiti, leaned against a metal walker for support as he shuffled slowly into the room. He had chronic, severe back pain, the legacy of a bullet lodged in his spine for the last 40 years and subsequent osteomylitis, inflammation from infected bone that, in the long term, can require bone extraction and amputation.

For the last month and half, Pierre had been detained at the Buffalo Service Processing Center in rural Batavia, New York. In 2022, ICE inspectors filed a report stating that the facility met government standards. But accounts of human rights abuses at the Buffalo Service Processing Center are harrowing, including solitary confinement of people for over a year and a half, cruel and degrading treatment of LGBTQ+ individuals, and mass lockdowns for up to 18 hours a day. Abusive treatment at the immigration detention center is so pervasive that in June 2023, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties opened a multidisciplinary onsite investigation into the facility, citing concerns over unhygienic living conditions, unsafe work programs, and medical neglect and abuse, among other issues.

Pierre’s rapidly declining health showed that medical care and conditions at Buffalo Service Processing Center haven’t improved. In the five weeks he had been detained there, he had lost 25 pounds. Recently, he woke up in his cell partially paralyzed below the waist. “My biggest fear,” he confided, “is I’ll die alone in my cell of a heart attack and nobody will be there to help me.”

Pierre has lived in the United States for 53 years, a lawful permanent resident for 45 of them, after originally immigrating as a child with his mother and siblings. His mother naturalized when he was a child, meaning he should have been entitled to U.S. citizenship. But a government attorney in immigration court was arguing that unless Pierre could prove his father had also naturalized, he was still a deportable immigrant.

The complexity was lost on Pierre, who didn’t have an attorney to represent him in immigration court, like 70% of people in immigration court (and almost 85% of detained people in immigration court), where there is no recognized right to counsel. His daughter, a U.S. citizen that he called his pride and joy, had reached out to attorneys to see if they could take his case. But the cost was prohibitive and pro bono resources were too overwhelmed with other cases to help.

So Pierre waited inside a detention center for the day that he would have a hearing with an immigration judge, alone. In the meantime, he practiced what he would say: “I came here when I was so young. My whole life is here. I’ve never been back.” True as that was, it was no defense to deportation under the law.