A startling petition arrived at the New York City Bar Association in October 2008, signed by 100 men, all locked up without criminal charges in the middle of Manhattan.
In vivid if flawed English, it described cramped, filthy quarters where dire medical needs were ignored and hungry prisoners were put to work for $1 a day.
The petitioners were among 250 detainees imprisoned in an immigration jail that few New Yorkers know exists. Above a post office, on the fourth floor of a federal office building in Greenwich Village, the Varick Street Detention Facility takes in 11,000 men a year, most of them longtime New Yorkers facing deportation without a lawyer.
Galvanized by the petition, the bar association sent volunteers into the jail to offer legal counsel to detainees — a strategy the Obama administration has embraced as it tries to fix the entire detention system.