Shawn was 28 when he left Guyana on a Visitor’s Visa in 1997. A college graduate, he took an off-the-books job when his Visa expired; he also found an apartment in Flatbush. He was HIV positive, and believed that he was making a decent life for himself; he did not worry about his lack of documentation. Then, in November 2003, he had an altercation with his landlady.
“She told me she wanted me out and I didn’t want to leave,” Shawn says. “One morning I was sleeping and heard someone opening my door. I sprung out of bed, scared, and pushed the door to keep it closed. I heard my landlady scream, ‘Oh my God, my finger.’ Apparently, her finger got squeezed in the door. I apologized and she left.
“Thirty days after this I hear a knock on the door. It was detectives. They took me to the precinct, telling me that my landlady has pressed assault charges against me. They held me from early morning until late at night when I finally saw the judge. The charges against me were eventually dismissed but the next thing I knew, the DA came in and told me I was being detained on an immigration offense.”
Immigrant detainees—the lion’s share from the Caribbean, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Pakistan—are the fastest growing group of prisoners in the U.S. and the only group incarcerated for civil offenses. “There are no accurate figures of how many detainees are under New York jurisdiction,” says Sarah Sohn of Immigration Equality, a non-profit Manhattan-based legal advocacy group. “Advocates estimate that 1000 immigrant detainees from New York City are held at any given time, but since the government refuses to release figures on how many detainees are being held at which facility, we can’t really know for sure. Nationally, between March 2003 and March 2004, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detained approximately 230,000 people and removed 93,486, some with chronic or life-threatening illnesses.”
While hard data may be impossible to obtain, detainee accounts like Shawn’s are readily available. After meeting with the DA, Shawn was held on Rikers Island from November 20 to December 31, and was then transferred to the Passaic County Jail, one of six New Jersey facilities used to house New Yorkers charged with immigration violations—some are public, others private. Regardless of ownership, they cost taxpayers between $70 and $100 per inmate per day.
“I was terrified by the process,” Shawn says. “I was in Passaic for four months and during most of that time I did not get my HIV medications. I’d say I got them 30 times. I was stressed and had chronic diarrhea, was throwing up, and had severe stomach pain. I was losing mad weight and was unable to sleep. It was awful. I’d see the nurse practitioner with the door open and the Corrections Officers would listen to everything I said. All the nurses would do was put a thermometer in my mouth. They did not examine me properly or listen to me. When I complained they said, ‘You have to remember, you are HIV positive.’ When I went in, I weighed 198 pounds. When I got out I weighed 154. I’m 5’11”, so I was a skeleton.”
Shawn is presently released on bond, but his legal status remains precarious and he is awaiting a final hearing to determine if he can remain in the country. “I have nobody in Guyana,” he says, “Everybody is here. If they send me back I’ll have to start all over. I won’t have a pot to cook in, a job, a place to live. The worst thing is that there is no medical care for people with HIV there. Gay men [like me] go through torture in Guyana. I had a friend who killed himself because he could not take it. I have that same feeling when I think about going back and having nobody.”
Although Shawn does not have a Green Card, having one might not have made a difference. This is because in 1996 Congress passed legislation—the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act—making it easier to remove non-citizens from the U.S., even those with absolutely nothing to do with domestic or international terrorism.
“The law did a few things,” says Legal Aid lawyer Bryan Lonegan. “It changed the definition of aggravated felonies [crimes ranging from rape and murder to altering a passport or possession of stolen mail] and made them crimes subject to mandatory deportation without exception, even in cases of self-defense or where the criminal charge is a misdemeanor. There is another category where you can apply for a Waiver of the Removal Order if the arrest did not occur within seven years of coming to this country. If it did, you’re shit out of luck.”
“Criminal” immigrants, he continues, get nabbed in several ways. “You may be serving a five-day sentence in Rikers for shoplifting. When you’re done you’re referred to Immigration and will be sent to another prison to await removal. Some people are grabbed at the airport when they return from vacation.
“One of my clients got pulled over for talking on his cell phone while driving. He came to the U.S. in 1990 and in the early ‘90s was arrested for selling a controlled substance. He served his time and came out repentant. He did well on parole and in 1996 got a Waiver of Deportation. The government appealed the Waiver and won, so the case was reopened. My client didn’t know this. He’d moved and didn’t stay in touch with his lawyer because he assumed the case was over. Meanwhile, he’s working, gets married, has kids and is doing fine. In August 2005, he’s caught talking on his cell phone and is now completely out of luck. His wife is legally blind, they have two kids, and he is poised to be deported.”
“This is the wonderful world of George Bush,” quips Lonegan. What’s more, he is outraged by the fact that those facing removal are denied free legal counsel. “If the government wants to take your kids away or try you for stealing, you get a free lawyer. But if you are being deported—a huge thing—there is no such right. It makes no sense.”
Forty-one-year-old Colin, a Jamaican Green Card holder out on bond, agrees with Lonegan, and believes that the government is overtly contemptuous of detainees. “The attitude,” he says, “is why waste money on these guys if we’re going to deport them?”
Like Shawn, Colin is HIV positive but was detained in numerous facilities: Rikers Island, Passaic County Jail and two Louisiana prisons, Oakdale and Concordia Parish. “In Concordia they say you can practice any religion but the policy is that you cannot have dreadlocks. For many Jamaicans, dreads are part of the religion. If you don’t shave them you are put in the box. But Passaic is the worst of the worst. There was never enough toilet paper for the 68 people in the dorm, they only serve cold food, there are leaks, the walls are slimy with mold, and they use dogs to disperse fights or when moving us from one place to another. They charged us $4.85 for the first minute and 85 cents for each additional minute for phone calls. It’s like we are cash cows.”
Health care in detention, Colin adds, is abysmal. In Oakdale, he became resistant to several of his HIV medications. “They did not change my regimen,” he says. “They only changed two of the medications, which made me resistant to the other drugs in the cocktail. The neuropathy in my legs is a consequence of this. While I was there my viral load went sky-high and my T cell count went down. Then, when I was transferred to Concordia, they lost my meds for two weeks. When the medicine finally came, they gave the pills to me at the wrong times.”
In Passaic things got even worse. Colin’s medical records never arrived and when he requested his drugs a nurse asked him what he took. “I didn’t know the names of all the pills so the nurse pointed to a chart on the wall and told me to pick some. I knew the colors and shapes and luckily picked the right ones, but they gave them to me at 8:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. I knew I was supposed to take them every 12 hours. When they finally started me on 12 hour intervals it was 4:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. I also got a bad fungal infection while in Passaic,” Colin recalls.
Detained for nearly four years, Colin presently lives in Crown Heights and volunteers as a peer educator and advocate for people with HIV/AIDS. His case will be decided sometime this fall. “When I first got out in May 2005, it was like I was walking in slow motion and everyone else was fast-paced,” he says. “I am still trying to adjust. Sometimes I cry. Sometimes I laugh. Sometimes I am stressed out.”
The Department of Homeland Security’s office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement gives lip service to providing decent care for the people it incarcerates, but when specific concerns are raised, staff either deny the problem or pass the buck. According to Mark Thorn, a New York ICE spokesman: “It is the Public Health Service that provides medical care and dispenses medication at the county jails…Our policy is to protect the privacy of our detainees and the information that is in their personal files. Relative to harassment, any detainee who believes he or she is being harassed or abused for any reason, such as discrimination because of nationality, religion or sexual preference—we want to know. A detainee is also encouraged to contact the Office of the Inspector General. Lastly, medical records are forwarded with the detainee.”
Attorneys Bryan Lonegan and Sarah Sohn, as well as their clients, are frustrated by this response but are doing what they can to publicize conditions facing immigrant detainees. They are pushing for improved hygiene and health care inside jails and for giving immigration judges the authority to make individualized decisions. They further advocate providing counsel to everyone facing removal.
“This country was built by immigrants,” former-detainee Colin thunders. “You kick people out and mothers have to go on welfare and kids become problem children. In the long run this will cost U.S. society.”
NOTE: Detainee names have been changed at their request.
ContributorEleanor J. Bader