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Injustice Behind Bars

Karen Yi Apr 17, 2009

An undocumented immigrant from Cameroon, Pauline Nbzie landed among the inmates of the Hudson County Correctional Center in New Jersey late last year due to her “illegal status.” Despite having no criminal record, Nbzie was detained for almost four months.

“They make you feel like you’ve killed so many people,” said Nbzie, whose hands, feet and waist were shackled when she was taken into detention. “I’ve been here [in the United States] for 20 years and I never committed a crime, I always pay taxes. But I was treated like a criminal.”

Stories like Nbzie’s are not uncommon. On an average day, more than 30,000 immigrants are held by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which is approximately triple the number in custody 10 years ago. ICE projects that about 440,000 will be detained in 2009, up from 311,213 detained in 2008.

A single mother of three, Nbzie was torn from her children and held in detention from October 2008 to January 2009. She was denied medical care, verbally harassed by guards and placed in substandard conditions. Suffering from high blood pressure and diabetes, Nbzie waited for two weeks before receiving medication. Forced to share a room with 40 other women, Nbzie said the food and living conditions were inhumane. She was given a uniform, two pairs of underwear and two bras for four months. “It was wash one, wear one,” Nbzie said. “It makes you feel less than a person.”

The healthcare conditions in immigration detention facilities have come under fire Human Rights Watch and the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, both organizations released reports on the topic in March.

And, according to Amnesty International, asylum seekers, trafficking victims, children and even U.S. citizens are detained under conditions that violate their human rights. A March Amnesty report, Jailed Without Justice, takes issue with the lack of separation between immigration detainees and convicts, “unnecessary and excessive” use of restraints, and inadequate access to legal council, healthcare and physical exercise.

Being undocumented is a civil offense, yet detainees are subject to mandatory detention without the right to judicial review. “No one in removal proceedings has a right to paid counsel,” said Kerri Talbot, associate director at the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), “They don’t have the same rights people have for criminal proceedings.” According to Amnesty, 84 percent of detainees are not able to attain legal aid.

“Immigrants are being persecuted under the full force of the Constitution of the laws, but they don’t have legal access or any of the rights under the constitution,” said Juan Carlos Ruiz, director of organizing at Youth Ministry for Peace and Justice.

“It’s the criminalization of immigrants,” said Alfonso Gonzales, a Latino Studies professor at New York University. The Migration Policy Institute found that 73 percent of detainees have no criminal records. “Naturally attributing and normalizing criminal characteristics to immigrants [is] the organizing principle behind all of this,” Gonzales said.

The Clinton administration widened the range of deportable offenses in 1996 through the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. Minor offenses became grounds to deport both illegal — and legal — immigrants.

“That’s what allows more raids, border expansion [and] militarization,” Gonzales said, “It’s the assumption that the people that are [immigrating] are indeed national security threats.”

After Sept. 11, 2001, immigrants were cast as a threat to national security, resulting in the USA PATRIOT Act, the creation of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and increased funding for programs like 287(g), giving local law enforcement the power to act as immigration agents.

The case of permanent resident Tirso Jose highlights the relationship between ICE and local jails and the trend toward the privatization of detention centers. Detained for possession of marijuana, Jose was sent to Rikers to serve a three-day sentence. While detained, ICE officials questioned his immigration status, putting him through four additional days of “hell” at Rikers, then transferred him to Varick Immigration Detention Center in Chelsea.

Locked up in a room with 53 other men, Jose was only allowed to leave the room for meals — three times a day. Forced to wear orange jumpsuits, detainees had 6 a.m. wake-up calls and solitary confinement as punishment and endured freezing room temperatures. Jose suffered from a heart condition, yet spent a week without his medication, dropping 35 pounds during the four months he was held. “They treat you like an animal,” he said, “it’s a business, they don’t care about you.”

Detention Watch Network (DWN) reports that there are more than 350 detention facilities nationwide. “ICE only owns and operates seven of them, about 16 are run by private prison corporations, and the rest are county or local jails which ICE contracts for bed space,” said Andrea Black, coordinator for DWN. Black says county and local jails hold 67 percent of all immigrants in detention.

With the decline in the number of incarcerated people, private prison corporations like Correction Corporation of America, GEO Group, Cornell and Management Corporations are turning to providing detention beds for ICE. The government gave ICE $1.7 billion for detention and custody in 2009. And the average cost per detainee is $95 per person per day. “When profit motives are involved in the process,” said Black, “it’s hard to look for alternatives.”

“[Detention] temporarily keeps this population silent — out of sight, out of mind,” said Chia-Chia Wang, coordinator at American Friends Service Committee, “but doesn’t address the real problem.”

“To have a truly humane system, we have to decriminalize immigrants by humanizing them and recognizing people’s rights to move freely across borders,” Gonzales said. “How can you have economic integration in the free movement of goods [with free trade agreements], but then criminalize the free movement of people? It’s a total contradiction.”

To read about May Day 2009, click here. For more from Karen Yi in this issue of The Indypendent, click here.