A Dream Detained

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

Nanyonga spent the next month and a half in maximum security, among criminal inmates who, she says, taunted her: "Hey, African monkey! Go back to where you came from." Only when representatives of groups who regularly visit INS detainees intervened— and brought in a BBC camera crew for an interview— did the INS return Nanyonga to Wackenhut. In the meantime, the INS and the prison were collaborating on a new project: a $19 million expansion designated especially for INS detainees. Meanwhile, York has done away with property taxes thanks to the windfall of the INS.

Compared to York, the return to Wackenhut came as some small relief to Nanyonga, but now, some seven months later, the tedium is taking its toll. Though youthful energy bursts from her slight frame as she talks— she gets agitated telling about York, smiles when explaining why she wants to study nursing— her complexion is dull, her face broken out from lack of sunshine and proper nutrition. Her case is still pending. All she can do is wait.

Despite the protracted delay, Nanyonga is not the longest-held detainee in the women's section at Wackenhut. Adelaide Abankwah, 29, will mark two years in the facility on March 29.

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.

Abankwah's case has become notorious— the subject of a NY1 interview and of a feature in a women's fashion magazine— not only because she has been confined for so long, but also because it reveals the byzantine nature of asylum laws and the gender biases buried within them.

To win asylum, claimants must prove that they have a "well-founded fear of persecution" on account of "race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion." An immigration judge ruling on Abankwah's case acknowledged her genuine fear of being returned to Ghana, where she has refused to take on an inherited leadership role in her tribe and expects to be punished for that refusal— and for her loss of virginity— with female genital mutilation. But the judge regards Abankwah's likely fate as "a matter of individual punishment rather than a matter of gen-eral practice imposed upon a particular social group" and thus not meriting asylum.

In a precedent-setting ruling in 1996, a woman from Togo, Fauziya Kassindja, did win asylum after fleeing genital mutilation at age 17. Kassindja, too, endured two years of detention, including some horror-filled weeks at York. But Abankwah's judge distinguished her case from Kassindja's on the grounds that in Togo, genital mutilation is still a matter of general practice imposed on a particular class. American immigration law has yet to recognize that cutting out a clitoris for any reason is an act of persecution.

Kassindja went out to Wackenhut to visit Abankwah a couple of weeks ago, to encourage her to keep up her spirits as she awaits the final outcome of her appeal, due early this summer. Abankwah says that it's just those sorts of visits that keep her from total despair. "People are trying for me," she says, "so I keep on fighting." And inside, the women find ways of supporting each other with quiet acts of intimacy, as Abankwah's spritelike hairdo of little balled-up braids suggests— it is the work of a Jamaican friend who tenderly tied each ball in place.

But the attraction of jigsaw puzzles and a Ping-Pong table set up in Wackenhut's indoor rec room, where detainees are given an hour to stretch their limbs each day, has long worn off, and Abankwah feels increasingly stir-crazy. "I must stay in one room for 23 hours," she says, barely lifting her eyes from the floor. Indeed, the dorm also serves as a dining room; the toilets are separated only by flimsy, three-foot-high walls and no doors; the showers are open. If someone gets sick, says Abankwah, she is not only on public display, "the stink takes over everybody and we can't eat."

She pauses, then blurts out, "At times I want to kill myself. I can't go back and I can't stay in this room for years. I'm dying in here."

That's a message that so far, at least, the INS has not heard— or refuses to hear— as it looks toward doubling its $700 million annual budget for detention and deportation in the next few years. For some INS officials, in fact, such prison expansion is a humanitarian act. In his letter to Osadeba Eboigbe's lawyer, district director McElroy brags that detention centers provide "a safe haven for asylum seekers pending the adjudication of their claims."

Hearing that brings the only smile to Eboigbe's lips during the 30-minute interview the Voice was granted with him. "A person cannot be in a confinement like this and feel that he is safe," he says, laying his hands on the table once more, and folding them tight. "But I did come to America because I thought it was a place I could find safety."

The Jesuit Refugee Service, among other groups, organizes regular visits to detained immigrants. To volunteer, call (973) 733-3516, ext. 207.

Osadeba Eboigbe, 25, fled from Nigeria after soldiers trying to seize his family's farm for the oil companies killed his brother. Time in INS detention: six months.
Adelaide Abankwah, 29, left Ghana to escape genital mutilation. Time in INS detention: two years.

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