A Dream Detained

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

But, say advocates such as Mary McClenahan, an attorney with the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, one of a consortium of groups providing pro bono assistance to detainees, such problems can easily be corrected with check-in requirements and other procedures that have succeeded elsewhere. Besides, she adds, the numbers are skewed because it's so much harder to win asylum cases for a detained applicant than for one who is outside, with access to evidentiary documents and far greater ease in seeing a lawyer. To visit clients in detention, attorneys often must travel nearly two hours to get to a facility, and then wait more than an hour for their client to be produced for a short meeting. "Many attorneys just don't have a whole day to give to get a 20-minute meeting with a client," she says.

There is less wiggle room in the law when it comes to district directors' discretionary ability to release "criminal aliens." In the 1996 legislation, Congress mandated the detention of all immigrants in this category— a category that they expanded, war-on-drugs style, with laws that widened the definition of deportable crimes to include minor nonviolent offenses.

Still, district directors may release "criminal aliens" on humanitarian grounds, and indeed, two seriously ill detainees were recently let out of the Krome detention center in Miami. But here in New York, McElroy has ignored the pleas of Kenneth Durant, 41, who came to the U.S. legally in 1984 to join his mother and siblings, and worked as a driver of Greyhound buses and for the consulate of Barbados, his birthplace. When Durant learned in 1989 that he was HIV-positive, he recalls, "My whole life changed. I was afraid to tell my mother what I had and I wanted to kill myself." He fell into a depression and spiraled into homelessness and drugs. He got picked up for possession of a crack stem, and again for other minor drug crimes, and served out his two-year sentence upstate.

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.

Upon his release last November, the INS took him into custody and began deportation proceedings against him. For seven weeks, he sat in the airless rooms of the INS's Manhattan detention center, at Varick and Houston streets, and then was shipped out to the Berks County prison in Pennsylvania, many hours' drive from his lawyer and from his Brooklyn-based family.

A judge has actually ruled that Durant should not be deported because in Barbados medical treatment for HIV is available only to pregnant women, but the INS is appealing his case. Since arriving at Berks, Durant's T-cell count has dropped from 580 to 465 and his viral load has more than doubled. He complains that his requests for medical attention go unheeded and that guards violate his confidentiality by calling out to him, "Time for your AIDS medicine," thereby making him a pariah among other detainees.

Criticism of INS detention— such as the Human Rights Watch report— point to experiences like these as examples of the lack of oversight the INS exerts when it puts its detainees in the hands of local prisons.

No one knows the results of such neglect better than Yudaya Nanyonga, a feisty wisp of a woman, who has been held by the INS for a year and a half— and for 55 days of that time, in a maximum-security cell in Pennsylvania.

Nanyonga arrived at JFK in November 1997, after a frightful journey from Uganda. She was only 19 then, and had run away after military men had come to her house in search of rebel collaborators. She hid, shaking in a back room, while a sister and her grandmother insisted they were the only ones home. Nanyonga explains that the local rebels had forced her to leave school and work as a courier for them, and she knew, she says, in a quiet, matter-of-fact tone, "the soldiers would come back and if they found me they would kill me." Her brother gave her a passport, a ride to the airport in Entebbe, and the phone number of their aunt in New Jersey. He didn't know to tell her about detention.

Once at Wackenhut, though, Nanyonga heard warning enough about the county prisons to which some women had been taken temporarily when bed space had to be freed up for new arrivals at the airport. York County, Pennsylvania, had a particularly gruesome reputation, so when Nanyonga found herself rounded up for transfer with five other women one day last June, she panicked. "As soon as we drove up and saw the sign saying 'York' everybody started crying," she recalls.

What happened over the next 72 hours remains something of a blur, but Nanyonga remembers being stripped naked, thrown to the ground, and secured spread-eagle onto a coverless bed in four-point restraints, while men in riot gear laughed at her nakedness. She remembers being injected twice in the rear— with some sort of sedative, she supposes— and waking up wondering who had put her bra and panties back onto her body, and wondering what else they might have done. Her right wrist still bears a gray, snaking scar where the handcuffs gripped her too tightly. (Officials at York have said that she was restrained, sedated, and put in solitary because she was thrashing and suicidal.)

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