In January, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced that by February 26 it would be transferring roughly 250 detainees from the privately run Varick Detention Center in Manhattan to the Hudson correctional center in Kearny, New Jersey. About 12,000 people annually, mostly New Yorkers who would be held at the Varick center, will now be distributed to facilities outside the city. ICE claims it is making the transfer to provide "outdoor recreation space and visitation services," but civil rights advocates paint a darker picture.

"We view this as a lose-lose situation," says Udi Ofer of the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), which, along with numerous other New York civil rights organizations, is disturbed that ICE is shifting people from one intolerable facility to another and not releasing them. The groups also worry that the move will deprive the Varick inmates of their free legal services.

The conditions at the Varick center were certainly dismal. On February 16, following months of requests and an ACLU letter on behalf of the The Nation and the investigative fund of The Nation Institute, ICE granted its only media tours of the facility, allowing confirmation of complaints in a September 2008 petition from Varick inmates. The dorms are packed with rows of narrow beds, fifty in all; the law library has dated resources; there is no privacy; and there is no natural light, ever.

The agents hosting the tour seemed embarrassed and emphasized the upcoming transfer as we looked through a long hall window at men slouching, feet on the floor, using their beds as backless chairs. The men, most in their 20s to 30s, were wearing tan and orange uniforms, color-coded to match their criminal histories; many in Varick have no arrest record. (No one locked up in an ICE facility is charged with a crime. Any criminal sentence has been served; most are pursuing claims in immigration courts.)

A new report by the NYCLU documents poor medical care, abuse by guards and inadequate meals. The same problems were described in the 2008 petition, from "201 Varick Street 4th floor," which stated that although inmates were given a Detainee Handbook, "almost nothing is followed" and "if we try to put a complaint we are threatened to be moved to worse facilities," maybe even Hudson. Although ICE is citing "visitation" as a reason for the transfer from Varick, Hudson visitation practices violate ICE detention standards.

In June 2008, three months before the Varick petition was released, ICE inmates at Hudson had penned their own petition. It began by noting that they had already been punished for two earlier petitions, one describing someone dying "due to reckless medical treatment" and another publicizing their "inhumane treatment."

Unlike the Bureau of Prisons, ICE operates and supervises its 350 jails without regulations, only voluntary "standards," an anomaly civil rights attorneys find appalling. "If you’re going to be one of the largest jailers in the world, it is a good use of your time to create enforceable regulations," says Amy Gottlieb, director of immigrant rights for the American Friends Service Committee in the New York area.

This lack of accountability explains why a century of hunger strikes, petitions, reports, commissions, lawsuits, news coverage and promises are only leading to more hunger strikes, petitions, reports, commissions, lawsuits, news coverage and promises.

In 2007 several civil rights groups signed a petition demanding that the Department of Homeland Security codify its operations. The Bush and Obama administrations ignored the petition until a federal court ordered a response, at which point DHS rejected regulations, explaining that they "would be laborious, time-consuming, and less flexible." Abiding by the rule of law does make life "less flexible" for all agencies–but the absence of regulations for detention operations has meant environments that are oppressive, arbitrary and even deadly.

Congress could pass a bill requiring enforceable detention standards. But Senator Chuck Schumer–a key player on immigration issues who recently decried the transfer from Varick to the Hudson jail as a "crushing blow" to their "due process rights"–will not be requiring detention regulations in his committee’s forthcoming bill. "Schumer is playing this safe political game and not recognizing we have a gulag happening," says Gottlieb.

Despite the difficulties of challenging a secretive outlaw agency, attorneys in New York have had some successes. Volunteer lawyers have been able to rectify medical and other detention-related complaints on behalf of their clients and won release for people who would otherwise be deported. Advocacy by Make the Road New York and the New Sanctuary Coalition has led to ICE agents wearing uniforms and identifying themselves when interviewing state prison inmates. (Previously ICE agents wore plain clothes, and inmates confused them with public defense attorneys.) Ex-New Yorker Cecil Harvey received a $145,000 settlement in September after Rikers Island jail held him illegally on behalf of ICE. The complaint was drafted by the New York University Immigrant Rights Law Clinic and is being used as a template for similar complaints nationwide.

During the Varick tour, I was shown a part of ICE’s operation there that is not changing, a dimly lit, gritty booking area adjacent to five concrete holding cells with open toilets, each cell designed for four to twelve occupants. New York field office director Christopher Shanahan said that people would be brought there for intake interviews and held for less than twelve hours, during which time they would not be allowed to meet with their attorneys. Peter Markowitz, director of the Immigration Justice Clinic at Cardozo Law School, called the policy "illegal and horrific," adding that "whisking New Yorkers out of town to far-off detention facilities in Texas and Alabama will deprive many immigrants of their one and only chance to meet with their attorneys."

The signatories of the 2008 Hudson petition wrote, "We are submitting this new petition…with hope of assistance to stop this nasty undeclared war against immigrants…. DHS, which was created after the tragedy of 9/11 to protect and prevent further attacks from foreign enemies [has turned] into a deporting machine without morality or principles–an army against immigrants."

Marion Munk, a Piscataway artist, took care of mail for the New Jersey Civil Rights Defense Committee, now inactive, to whom the petition was addressed. They sent letters to the signatories. "All but a few were returned," says Munk. "The petition writers had been transferred or deported."