Holding Pattern

Another kind of 9/11 victim, Narinder Singh spent more than five years locked up for no crime at all

Along Central Avenue, in one of the more pleasant stretches of Jersey City, a small convenience store lies a block from the neighborhood cop shop. The shelves are mostly bare, with just a few jars of cold cream and nail polish, but most people only come in for smokes and lottery tickets anyway. As the elderly black and Asian customers scratch away at the cards beneath the fluorescent tubes, they shove their cash at a pleasant Indian man pushing 40, with a baseball cap, a beard, and a constant, reflexive smile on his face. None of them know that he just got out of prison.

Well, not prison, exactly. Although he was never accused of committing a crime, Narinder Singh spent years locked up in an immigration detention cell, courtesy of the federal government. He was beaten by a fellow inmate, spent time in the hole, and lived in a pod with 40 other men, deprived of sunlight, his own reading material, or much more than an hour of recreation time a day. Serving no sentence, Singh never knew when or if he would get out. Almost every day of his confinement, he called his wife and friends in Astoria and asked how this could happen to him. Suddenly, in August, the federal government let him go, and he was back on the streets, just like that. But the inevitable results of being locked up for so long continue to afflict him.

"I got my own business before," Singh says in his broken, Punjabi-inflected English. "And I have good life. And I got a good apartment there. We pay like thirteen-hundred dollar for that apartment—one bedroom. And after [detention], my wife, she not able to pay that much rent by herself. And then she move somewhere. And there is—I spend a lot of money to make up my apartment." Singh tallies up the damage: the temporary driver's license and bank account he lost; the credit-card debt; the legal bills; the furniture his wife had to sell. "Everything is gone. We lose everything. It's like we start all over again."

In the spring of 2002, in the fervid months after the 9/11 attacks, Singh flew to India, where his mother had just died. When he returned, an immigration official at JFK suspected that his marriage was a sham to gain permanent-resident status, and he began proceedings to deport Singh. Because Singh had been questioned in an airport—technically crossing a border—immigration law allowed for Singh to be detained indefinitely as his case made its way through the system. As immigration officials lost his paperwork for months, or sent his case to other jurisdictions, Singh was transferred from one facility to the next, waiting for what was always supposed to be a few more months until everything would work out. Without having committed a single crime, Singh ultimately spent five and a half years in what amounts to federal prison—one of the longest detention spells in recent history.

Singh's story emerges at a time when the nation's immigrant-detention system has been rocked with burgeoning scandals. As the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) struggles to process 275,000 annual detainees, critics and government inspectors have deplored the unsanitary conditions and the lack of due process at detention facilities around the country. Twelve months ago, the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General issued a report that detailed the inhumane conditions, substandard medical care, vermin, and undercooked food found at five randomly sampled detention centers, including two in New Jersey. This summer, ICE officials acknowledged that 64 immigrants had died in detention since 2004, many for lack of adequate health care. Last month, an ICE agent was arrested on charges that he raped a Jamaican detainee. And in a particularly sensational case, ICE officials recently dragged a Honduran immigrant from her infant, who was still breast-feeding. The incident prompted agency head Julie Myers to order the woman's release and to issue new guidelines prohibiting the detention of new mothers if they don't represent a flight risk.

In the face of such stories, the Senate amended the 2007 Comprehensive Immigration Bill to add an Office of Detention Oversight to the Department of Homeland Security. But since the bill died in Congress this summer, nothing was ultimately accomplished. And according to Aarti Shahani, the co-founder of the New York immigrant-advocacy group Families for Freedom, the detention system is not just an overcrowded, unsanitary mess. Because detention is a civil procedure, she says, detainees have no right to legal counsel and often can't contact lawyers or their families to help them. The very nature of the system is designed to put them at a disadvantage.

"Even though it's purely civil, there's a punitive aspect to that," Shahani says. "Detention helps the government secure a win, because it ties the hand of the immigrant. You're talking about a proceeding that could result in lifetime exile, but you have no public defender. When you're locked up, it's not like you just stay in one facility that's close to home—you're tossed around the country. And you don't get to take your records with you. Figure that being an immigrant, English is your second or third language, and the stakes are very high."

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