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.

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.

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.)

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.

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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