The moment he walked out of the gates of York County prison in Pennsylvania on Friday, Abraham Zuma literally kissed the ground. The gesture symbolized more than his jubilation at being released from three years of detention by the Immigration and Naturalization Service while he waited for his asylum application to crawl through the system. Stepping beyond those gates also meant that in the eyes of U.S. law, which doesn’t recognize would-be immigrants it apprehends at airports as actually having entered the country—no matter how long they are detained—the Kenyan refugee was finally regarded as having arrived on American soil.
“I’m still not believing it,” Zuma said on Sunday, sitting back in a stuffed chair in a Montclair, New Jersey, living room, where a local family is putting him up until he can find work and housing. “It’s been so long since I have been free.” In addition to being held for the last several months in York, Zuma spent some two and a half years in the windowless former warehouse in Elizabeth, New Jersey, that holds 300 undocumented asylum seekers who are apprehended at JFK or Newark airports. Like many of the roughly 5000 asylum seekers currently detained by the INS, Zuma tells a harrowing tale of persecution and flight: six years in a Kenyan prison, where he was tortured for participating in a demonstration in favor of a multiparty government; nine months in a makeshift, underground cell, where his own party held him after his release, charging that he had betrayed them to authorities; an escape as a stowaway on a ship that docked in Venezuela, where he met another month of incarceration; and finally, arrival in the U.S., where he plunged down the befuddling and depressing rabbit hole of America’s restrictive immigration policy.
A slash over Zuma’s right eye that pulls his eyelid up into a perpetual expression of inquisitiveness is only the most visible sign of the violence he experienced—the result of a rifle butt smashing into his face at the multiparty demonstration. Under the Seton Hall sweatshirt he sported on Sunday, Zuma’s chest, back, and arms bear welts and scars caused by heated irons his Kenyan jailers used to scorch his skin. He declined to describe the other means of torture he endured, saying that he couldn’t discuss such things with a female journalist.
Still, Zuma’s initial request for asylum was denied. That outcome offers a stark example of the arbitrary nature of INS judgments. Zuma had also written an application for the illiterate friend with whom he’d been jailed in Kenya and with whom he made the long journey—and that man’s plea was granted immediately. Zuma languished in Elizabeth, and even after he found an attorney through the American Friends Service Committee who would file his appeal, a full year passed before the INS provided the transcript of his initial hearing—and only then could the attorney prepare his case.
Like other long-term INS detainees, Zuma suffered from the monotony, the lack of sunlight, and especially the utter uncertainty of his fate. “Criminals in prison know what their sentence is,” he notes. “But refugees stay inside. You have no idea when you might get out, and also you have the fear they might send you back to the place you had to run away from.” The hopelessness so got to Zuma that he attempted suicide several times during his detention, once banging his head against a wall until he drew blood. Zuma was sent to local hospitals—where he was shackled to the bed and issued antidepressants. “But I wasn’t sick, I’m not sick,” he insists. “It was the frustration, the situation, the system.”
Authorities at Elizabeth have acknowledged that a detainee attempts or threatens suicide every 40 days, and experts on torture say that the stress of indefinite incarceration, combined with the aftereffects of trauma, deepens despair. What is more, say immigrant advocates, the conditions at Elizabeth—and at the other facilities around the country where the INS holds some 20,000 detainees—are substandard and inhumane. Last month, two asylum seekers filed a federal civil rights suit alleging abuses in Elizabeth.
Last year alone, detainees there engaged in several hunger strikes to protest their lengthy incarceration. In late August, an asylum seeker from Albania fell—or jumped—during a fire drill at the facility and died four weeks later from the head injuries. And the detainees bringing the lawsuit allege that guards—under the supervision of the private prison company that manages the facility, the Corrections Corporation of America— had beaten, verbally abused, and mistreated them, holding one for more than a week in a cell smeared with human feces. After a lengthy investigation by the Bergen Record last spring documented such claims, several supervisors and guards were barred from going near detainees, a warden resigned, and the chief of security was removed. Nonetheless, INS district director Andrea Quarantillo hails the Elizabeth facility as “the national model of detention centers” since its reopening in 1997 after detainees tore the place apart in a 1995 protest riot. And according to INS spokesperson Lynn Durko, the agency renewed CCA’s Elizabeth contract in December.
At about the same time, the INS put an end to one of the few programs that offered some solace to detainees, when Quarantillo abruptly canceled Bible study and English language classes that had been conducted by Jesuit Refugee Services for two and a half years, after objecting to a passage from Matthew being part of the lesson plan. It states: “I was a stranger and you invited me in. . . . I was in prison and you came to visit me.” Pastoral visits were also suspended. “The Newark District of the INS has no objection to Matthew 25 or any other Bible passage and does not seek to censor them,” said district director Quarantillo in a statement released in late December. “We only request that detention issues should not be included in the lesson plans.” Durko explains that JRS volunteers “aren’t qualified to talk about detention and therefore are passing misinformation. That builds up hopes and then frustrates people.”
Abraham Zuma, for one, places the blame for his frustrations in detention on the sluggish system and harsh conditions, not on the visitors who offered him the sympathy he thought America would extend to any refugee. “They were helping me so much,” he says, “just because they feel for the people.”
On March 9, a new Bible study course began, offered by several Episcopalian groups, which had to agree not to discuss detention issues. That’s not a problem for Reverend Joe Parrish, who runs the program. “We have no reason to discuss detention,” he says. “We don’t have a clue or inkling of the law or of how the process works.”