Holding Pattern

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

According to Singh's attorney, Sandro Paterno, his wife didn't show up for the hearing, and that was probably what moved the judge to rule against him. But Paterno says that Laura Singh was simply too afraid to attend. "After being threatened at the airport, after going through the Stokes interview, and being accused of being a liar and threatened with five years in jail. . . she didn't go to the hearing," Paterno says. Today, Laura Singh is unhappy that her husband is talking to the media and declined to comment in detail. "We've been trying to stay low, but whatever," she says. "It's a lot of work, trying to get our life back together."

Despite failing to attend the hearing, Laura worked with Singh's lawyers to appeal the decision, while Singh cooled his heels in detention for five more years.

Narinder Singh: “I had not committed any crime. . . . I have to be detained more than five years—for nothing, no reason!”
photo: Filip Kwiatkowski
At least Singh had a lawyer. According to David Leopold, the national vice president of the American Immigrant Lawyers Association, countless detainees who don't have legal representation can vanish into the prison network, especially if they're transferred from New York down to county jails in the South, which are increasingly being rented out as detention centers. "People can get lost in the system, quite literally like a file," he says. "It's quite scary for somebody who doesn't have somebody on the outside like family or an attorney."
Narinder Singh spent more than five years locked up in federal detention centers, and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency still hasn't resolved his case.
photo: Filip Kwiatkowski
Narinder Singh spent more than five years locked up in federal detention centers, and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency still hasn't resolved his case.

According to Judy Rabinovitz, who runs the ACLU's Immigrant Rights Project, everything changed after 1996, when the Clinton administration and a Republican Congress passed new immigration laws. "There was a whole push toward mandatory detention, so the '96 laws are much more restrictive. And since then, it's been making sure more people are locked up—and post-9/11, it's even more. . . . Right now, there are about 30,000 detention beds. In 1992, there were 6,000 detention beds."

The detention system has now become so unwieldy, Leopold says, that the case backlog has slowed the adjudication and appeals process to a glacial pace. And because detention is a civil proceeding, certain constitutional rights are not guaranteed—such as the right to a speedy trial. ICE spokeswoman Ernestine Fobbs did not return phone calls seeking comment on this issue.

Narinder Singh experienced this administrative chaos firsthand. Immediately after the immigration judge ordered his deportation, Singh's lawyer and his wife filed an appeal. Immigration officials didn't respond with an opposition brief until March 2003, more than four months later. But more than a year passed before it became obvious that Singh's appeal paperwork had simply been lost by the government, and the mistake cost him 18 months of his life.

During that time, in 2004, Singh was moved to a new detention center in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and a cell with about 40 other detainees from every corner of the world. He had cell mates from Nigeria, Cambodia, and Uzbekistan. Few of them spoke adequate English, so they had to communicate in gestures.

"It's nothing to do but sit on my back all day," he recalls. "All the time, I just pray—that's all. Most of the time, I have nothing to do over there." And the shackles and security, Singh added, left him feeling so degraded that he wouldn't let his wife or friends visit him. "If anybody try to visit me, I start crying. I say, 'I don't want to let them visit me—not anybody.' It's better I call everyday, I tell my wife. I say I can call her."

The only thing he and his father could do, Singh's friend Thomson says, was listen sympathetically. "We thought he was gonna get out right away," he says. "Like an error in the system, like a glitch. But that glitch turned into years and years. All we could do was provide an ear for him and help him stay strong. Because he was calling all the time, telling my dad, 'Eddie, I don't know what to do.' "

After years of appeals and deportation proceedings, federal officials suddenly decided to release Singh this summer. Nothing about his status had changed, but Singh's lawyer believes that a federal judge had made inquiries about why his detention had lasted so long.

And just like that, Singh was free. Paterno picked him up outside the Elizabeth detention facility and drove him back to Astoria, where his wife and friends were waiting. At a welcome-home party in a backyard in Queens, Andrew Thomson saw Singh for the first time since 2002. "At first, he didn't look the same, so nobody recognized him," Thomson recalls. Then it hit him: Singh had lost about 50 pounds. "He got caught up in that 9/11 chaos. I just don't like the way the government handled that situation. They ruined his whole life. He's not the same now."

Singh has moved back in with his wife, in a studio apartment in the same Astoria neighborhood. Four months after his release, his experience still galls him; it will probably gnaw at him forever. "Yeah, I'm very angry," he says. "Because I had no reason to be detained. I had not committed any crime. . . . There is nothing wrong with me. I have to be detained for more than five years—for nothing, for no reason!" But he says he's not going anywhere. "My wife is here," he says. "I have to stay. What can I do in [India] now? I have nothing there."

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