Boro detention center near JFK to close

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The Queens Detention Center, located at 188-22 150th Ave. and more commonly referred to as Wackenhut, will close at the end of June, said Manny Van Pelt, a spokesman for the Homeland Security Department's Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

In ending its contract with the private company that runs the 200-bed facility, the Florida-based GEO Group-formerly the Wackenhut Corp.-the bureau will no longer have to pay $228 per detainee per day. Instead, all those being held will be transferred to a similar, 300-bed facility in Elizabeth, N.J., which has room for them and where the rate is usually $179. The Elizabeth Detention Center is also centrally located and more accessible to Homeland Security's other facilities, Van Pelt said.

"It takes fewer resources," Van Pelt said, noting that the move will allow the government to focus more on immigrants accused of committing crimes or fleeing from deportation hearings or orders.

When people arrive from overseas at places such as Kennedy Airport seeking asylum from persecution in their country of origin but do not have the proper documents, they are often held in detention centers like Elizabeth and Wackenhut. They are then either granted asylum, paroled into the community until their case is settled or deported. Some immigrants, meanwhile, are detained while their status is being determined or the government is working on repatriating them. Critics have said members from both groups can be held for months and years, but Van Pelt said that portrayal is misleading.

"We move as expeditiously as possible," he said, stressing that only 28 percent of asylum cases are deemed legitimate.

The idea of even using detention centers like Elizabeth and Wackenhut for asylum seekers, however, has drawn fire from human rights groups, which have said the facilities place too much stress on those who may be traumatized.

The Wackenhut facility is a converted brick warehouse without an outside common area and with windowless rooms. While no criminals are held at the Queens or Elizabeth centers, detainees at Wackenhut have complained about a lack of privacy and being made to wear prison-style uniforms, and they have held hunger strikes in the past.

It is "structured and operated much like a traditional jail or correctional facility," said a report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent, bipartisan federal agency.

But the biggest criticism of both the Wackenhut and Elizabeth centers has been their failure to release asylum seekers into the community, even when official government conditions have been met. The release rates at both facilities are among the lowest in the nation, according to the commission, with the Queens center registering 8.4 percent and the New Jersey site recording only 3.8 percent.

Both rates were lower than at detention centers in other parts of the country because Homeland Security allows regional discretion, said Eleanor Acer, director of the asylum program for the New York non-profit Human Rights First.

"I'm not at all sorry to see the facility go," she said of Wackenhut. But she said the Elizabeth center was no better. "They're not dealing with the underlying problems."

Reach reporter Michael Morton by e-mail at or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

Posted 7:07 pm, October 10, 2011
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