A Dream Detained

Why immigrants have become America's fastest-growing jail population

Osadeba Eboigbe stares at his hands, folded tightly on the plastic table in front of him, as if he could hold back his fear and bewilderment if only he squeezed them hard enough. "It's a mental torture here," he says of Wackenhut, a detention center for undocumented immigrants in Jamaica, Queens, where he has been confined for the past six months. "I thought I was coming to this country to find my freedom, but instead . . . " His voice trails off and his hands unclasp to gesture helplessly at the cinder block walls. His long fingers look strong, his palms muscular, signs of the farmwork he did back home in Nigeria, until the military tried to seize his family's lands for oil exploration. Eboigbe resisted. In a standoff with soldiers, he saw one of his brothers shot dead. He left his brother's bleeding body on the ground and fled for his life.

A helpful stranger drove Eboigbe out of Nigeria in a minivan, disguising him as a Muslim woman so his face would not be visible, and dropped him at the airport in the Ivory Coast. Eboigbe, 25, boarded a plane for the first time in his life, and when he arrived at JFK on September 20, did just what the stranger had instructed: He approached a man in uniform and told him he was seeking political asylum in the United States. Ever since, he has been penned up, languishing in a fluorescent-lit limbo. He has no way of knowing how long it might be until he is released— if he is released at all.

As the plight of immigrant detainees has steadily worsened in recent years, outraged opposition— expressed by everyone from local grassroots activists to international human rights organizations— has reached such a pitch that Doris M. Meissner, commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, has agreed to meet with advocates next week. Human Rights Watch issued a scathing report on INS detention in the fall, and Amnesty International launched a major protest campaign. And in late February, in an unprecedented rebuke, even the UN High Commissioner of Refugees charged the INS with unjust detention policies.

Yudaya Nanyonga escaped at 19 from Uganda, fearing soldiers would kill her for forced collaboration with rebels. Time in INS detention: a year and half, 55 days in a maximum-security cell.
Meg Handler
Yudaya Nanyonga escaped at 19 from Uganda, fearing soldiers would kill her for forced collaboration with rebels. Time in INS detention: a year and half, 55 days in a maximum-security cell.

Immigrant detainees are the fastest-growing segment of America's exploding jail population. Their numbers have tripled to 16,400 since 1994, and the INS predicts that they will hit 24,000 by 2001. No surprise, then, that the INS is a major player in the country's prison-building boom, putting up and expanding its own detention facilities across the country, signing ever more voluminous contracts with private prison companies, and, by farming out detainees to dozens of county corrections departments, egging on the already breakneck expansion of that prison system.

Thus, the windowless building in Queens where Osadeba Eboigbe spends his days lying on his bunk, trying not to think about what may have become of the mother and brother he left behind, may look like any other brown brick former warehouse. But the 200-bed facility— operated by the Wackenhut Corrections Corporation, the self-described "global leader in privatized corrections," in a five-year, $49 million contract with the INS— is also a harsh symbol of how America produces and protects its wealth. Such prisons stand at the crossroads of anti- immigrant anxiety and the roaring economy of incarceration, raking in profits and, at the same time, barring the supposed threat of teeming masses coming to snatch those profits away. In emblematic terms, INS detention is a veritable fortress of the new American prosperity.

But that lucrative protectionism, critics say, comes at a devastating price— a capricious system of laws, and an inhumane, and at times even abusive, application of them.

Eboigbe says that most days he feels too sad to rouse himself for what passes for outdoor recreation at Wackenhut— an hour in a walled-in cement courtyard with a chain-link roof, his only access to fresh air. Eboigbe's indefinite incarceration follows the letter of the law. Though an immigration judge found him eligible for withholding of removal— which means the U.S. must not return him to Nigeria— the INS district director, Edward McElroy, has reviewed the situation and found nothing untoward in it. Withholding of removal, he instructs Eboigbe's lawyer in a letter of January 27, "does not necessitate his release from detention," it "only prevents the service from returning Mr. Eboigbe to Nigeria." In other words, it's perfectly legal to keep him detained forever— and at a taxpayer cost of $100 a day.

The law, in fact, has encouraged such Kafkaesque situations, especially since Congress revised immigration statutes in 1996 with a zeal to crack down on illegal immigration and on legal immigrants who have committed crimes. One such "reform" was intended to speed up the expulsion of those who arrive without documentation: If they fail to pass a quick airport interview to determine whether they have a "credible fear" of persecution where they came from, they are returned home. But the law also sends those like Eboigbe, who do pass their credible-fear interviews, directly to jail, where they can remain until their case reaches a final decision. With a mountainous backlog of cases, detainees frequently wait months or even years.

The law does give INS district directors the discretion to parole asylum seekers on a case-by-case basis while they await the next phase of their hearings. But those who have the bad luck to land at JFK have little chance of such relief. District director McElroy takes a dim and narrow view of discretionary parole. He told a regional meeting of INS staffers and detainee advocates in January that only about a third of applicants are granted asylum, and that the rest are unlikely to appear at their hearings if they are not detained.

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