Immigrants in Detention

"End detention as we know it": This was the goal presented at the beginning of the third annual Detention Watch Network conference on Nov. 25-28 in Baltimore, Md. Using the phrase in satiric imitation of Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign promise to restructure welfare, James Haggerty, an attorney with the Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc., set the tone for the three-day gathering. He and other speakers, together with close to 200 participants of varying faith-based backgrounds from around the countryattorneys, social workers and service providers working in the nation’s growing number of immigrant detention centersleft no doubt about their desire to help roll back the punitive aspects of the 1996 immigration law, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act.

Among the more punitive provisions of that legislation is mandatory detention for many of the immigrants who arrive without valid documentationincluding asylum seekers escaping from countries where they had undergone persecution. Largely as a result of this provision, the number of immigrants behind bars has nearly doubled in recent years, a circumstance that finds its dark parallel in the closely related surge in the populations of America’s jails and prisons. Ten of the detention facilities holding immigrants are owned and operated by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. With bed space becoming increasingly scarce, however, the I.N.S. is making more and more use of contract facilities run by for-profit companies like the Corrections Corporation of America and Wackenhut. The growing move toward privatization has meant that financial gainand not just Congressional anti-immigrant legislationis part of the force that is driving up the number of detainees.


But even with the escalating use of private companies, space still falls short, and the I.N.S. has resorted to renting additional space in city and county jails. Indeed, 60 percent of detainees are currently housed in these latter facilities. For sheriffs anxious to increase revenue by putting unoccupied cells to profitable use, immigrants represent what one speaker referred to as "cash cows" for local jailsin other words, commodities rather than human beings. Once in local jails, men and women who have committed no crime are routinely housed with inmates being held on criminal charges or those with criminal histories. Jails located in remote areas present special problems because of distances that make it difficult for attorneys to visit their clientsif the immigrants are fortunate enough to have legal counsel at all. Many do not. Language barriers are another obstacle, because guards in local facilities sometimes speak no language but English.

Frequent transfers from I.N.S. facilities to jails, often with no warning, make it even more difficult for attorneys to maintain contact with clients. Cheryl Little, executive director of the Florida Immigration Advocacy Center in Miami, said in one of the conference’s workshops that immigrants were "bounced around like ping pong balls." During the transfer process, moreover, detainees’ legal documents, along with telephone numbers and addresses and even medical records, can easily be lost. The result is still more problems both for attorneys and family members who are trying to maintain contact with clients and loved ones.

Among the strategies suggested by conference participants for effecting change in the provisions of the 1996 law was heightened publicity for accounts by detainees themselves of what they had endured. Three former detainees, all of them asylum seekers, were present at the Baltimore gathering: a married couple from El Salvador, José and Amalia Molina; and Yudaya Nanyonga, a native of Uganda. They had been held in custody for over a year and a half, and each told his or her own story during the course of the conference.

Ms. Nanyonga has now been granted asylum, but the Molinas are only free on bond as they await the outcome of their asylum claiminitially denied and now on appeal. During the 16 months of their detention at the I.N.S. facility at San Pedro, Calif., they were held in separate units and were never allowed to visit each other, nor were they even permitted to write to each other directly. Their three children, the youngest 15, were left to fend for themselves in Los Angeles. To make matters worse, while the Molinas were in custody, they lost their home. Loss of home, separation from children and the inability of husband and wife to communicate with each other combine to offer a striking example of how current detention policies inflict damage on family life. In cases involving the deportation of a parent whose children were born here and who are therefore American citizens, the effects of the law can all but destroy a family’s sense of unity.

For her own part, Mrs. Molina spoke of the deep sense of loneliness and abandonment she had experienced. Her situation was made worse by poor medical attention: It took 15 months for her to receive a requested gynecological examination, and she was never given the mammogram for which she had asked. A similar lack of appropriate medical attention was noted by Ms. Little in regard to the I.N.S. Krome facility near Miamiso deficient, she said, that even some of the institution’s own nurses and doctors had approached her with their concerns over the low level of health care.

One significant source of support for the Molinas during their long detention was the Los Angeles director for Jesuit Refugee Services’ detention project, Robert McChesney, S.J., a regular presence at San Pedro near Los Angeles. It was he who not only assisted them with immigration and other issues, but also encouraged Mrs. Molina to become a spiritual leader for the women in her "pod" (see Am., 4/24/99). Although he works full time at San Pedro, however, the I.N.S. does not recognize Father McChesney or other religious providers as chaplains; in its eyes he only has the status of a volunteera situation that makes his very presence tenuous. On more than one occasion, in fact, while trying to assist detainees, he has been warned not to "cross the line." When J.R.S. and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles urged the I.N.S. to appoint a full-time chaplain, they were told that salary considerations were the primary reason for the refusal they received. But when they countered with an offer by J.R.S. to pay the salary, the matter disappeared into the I.N.S. bureaucracy. The I.N.S.’ reluctance in the matter of chaplaincy positions at detention centers underscores the difficulties that service providers, both religious and others, face in trying to minister to immigrants held in custody.

A similarly restrictive situation has prevailed on the other side of the country at the detention center in Elizabeth, N.J., which is operated as a contract facility by the Corrections Corporation of America. J.R.S. has been providing volunteer-run programs there for over two years. During this past fall the I.N.S. district director, Andrea Quarantillo, ordered the indefinite suspension of an ecumenical Bible study program and classes in English as a second language. The suspension of the former occurred after an official termed inappropriate the use of Matthew 25, the passage in which Jesus commends those who visit the imprisoned and welcome the strangerthe very text appointed to be read at church services that week by the Common Lectionary, followed by many Christian denominations nationwide. At a subsequent meeting, officials claimed that in programs like the Bible study and English classes J.R.S. volunteers were offering "unreasonable hope to detainees" and teaching them "to think on their own." Clearly, empowerment of immigrant detainees goes counter to the I.N.S.’s agenda.

On a more positive note, at the federal level several bills introduced in Congressand others not yet introduceddo offer some hope for relieving the mounting pressures on immigrants in custody. The most recent is one introduced by Senator Patrick Leahy (Democrat of Vermont). Called the Refugee Protection Act, it would not only address the issue of mandatory detention, but also another of the law’s damaging provisions, expedited removal. This procedure empowers I.N.S. officers at major ports of entry to issue removal orders for immigrants who arrive without valid travel documents. Although the process does allow immigrants who express a fear of persecution to move on to an interview before an immigration judge, many asylum seekers are too fearful and confused to be able to explain their situation with clarity. And having fled, they are unable to produce the kinds of documents that immigration officers require. Lack of qualified interpreters for non-English speakers further sharpens their dilemma.

Stephen Knight, a research fellow at the Center for Human Rights and International Justice at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law, said that the expedited removal process has led to the summary removal of 75,000 people annually. A report prepared by the center notes that the I.N.S. refuses to allow observation of the expedited removal proceedings by members of nongovernmental organizations; it also refuses to supply them with statistical data. As the report observes, denial of access and data "continues to isolate the expedited removal process from careful scrutiny and evaluation." But enough is known to reveal certain inequities; for example, women are more likely than men to be removed, along with people of lower socio-economic status and poorer educational backgrounds.

Another bill, introduced by Representative Bill McCollum (Republican of Florida)the Fairness for Permanent Residents Actwould cancel deportation proceedings for certain groups of legal residents who, long before, committed crimes for which they had served their sentences. Some were misdemeanors which, prior to 1996, did not result in deportation. Now, though, because the criminality aspect of the law is retroactive, even relatively minor offences of "moral turpitude" can mean that men and women who have lived in the United States for years and raised families herewith children who were born as American citizenscan be deported, oftentimes to countries with which they no longer have a meaningful connection. The expansion of the definition of criminality is another instance of the way in which the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act has damaged the stability of immigrant families living peaceful lives in the United States. In circumstances involving the deportation of the breadwinner, the hardship for the rest of the family has been especially severe. Melanie Nezer of Immigration and Refugee Services of America observed that although the McCollum billeven if enacted into lawwould benefit relatively few people, it is nonetheless significant because Representative McCollum was a strong backer of the 1996 legislation. The progress of the Leahy and McCollum bills, as well as that of the six others, will be slow, andgiven the largely anti-immigrant sentiment that prevailsthey face a difficult and uncertain future. But the very fact that they have been introduced at all suggests a growing perception among some members of Congress that IIRIRA has caused a level of hardship not originally anticipated when it was signed into law.

Coordinated by Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and co-sponsored by the same group, along with Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc. and the Florence Immigration and Refugee Rights Project, the conference was held less than two months before National Migration Week, Jan. 3 to 9. The week had as its theme "Open Wide the Doors." The thrust of the new immigration law has gone in exactly the opposite direction: closing the doors on a growing number of immigrants who, once here, may find themselves summarily removed or placed behind bars for long periods of time. Bishop Nicholas DeMarzio, bishop of Camden and chairman of the Committee on Migration of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a statement prior to National Migration Week that "as we begin this third Christian millennium, we have...the opportunity to recommit ourselves to welcoming the stranger among us." How great that challenge is was made evident in testimony he gave before Congress on Feb. 25, 1999. The immigration law, he said, undermines human rights, separates families and violates fundamental notions of fairness. It may therefore be far into the new millennium before "the stranger among us" isif not welcomedat least not treated with the degree of harshness to which immigrants are presently subjected.

George M. Anderson, S.J., is an associate editor of America.


Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
12 years 2 months ago
Many thanks for the article by George Anderson, S.J., on immigrants in detention (1/15). When I tell people about conditions in the Elizabeth Detention Center in New Jersey, they ask, “How is it that we don’t know about this?” I recently visited an African woman who had undergone torture as a political prisoner in her own country, fled to another country and finally made it to the United States seeking asylum, only to find herself in a windowless converted warehouse. That was back in August. Now, six months later and with no end in sight, she told me that she was going to give up her quest for asylum and accept deportation. “I was tortured at home, and now I am being tortured here.”

12 years 2 months ago
Many thanks for the article by George Anderson, S.J., on immigrants in detention (1/15). When I tell people about conditions in the Elizabeth Detention Center in New Jersey, they ask, “How is it that we don’t know about this?” I recently visited an African woman who had undergone torture as a political prisoner in her own country, fled to another country and finally made it to the United States seeking asylum, only to find herself in a windowless converted warehouse. That was back in August. Now, six months later and with no end in sight, she told me that she was going to give up her quest for asylum and accept deportation. “I was tortured at home, and now I am being tortured here.”


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