Holding Pattern


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.”

With an estimated 630,000 illegal immigrants who have ignored deportation orders and are at large today, few would disagree that some sort of detention system must be in place. But thanks to a disorganized, overcrowded bureaucracy, no one knows how many detainees are improperly or arbitrarily imprisoned for years. With no effective audit of the detainee population available, there’s no way to know just how many immigrants have stories like Narinder Singh’s.

Singh flew to New York in 1997 to visit a few uncles, but took one look at the city and decided to take a stab at living here. Since he already had a pharmacy degree from a university in India, he enrolled at St. John’s University to work towards the equivalent degree in the United States; meanwhile, he worked the counter at his uncle’s deli in Queens. In 1998, Singh met and married an American citizen, but divorced after a few years. Meanwhile, he found to his dismay that college costs were high and had to drop out.

In 1999, while working at the deli, Singh met Laura Pickering, who worked at a nearby bar. “She used to come here in my store and play some Lotto and drink some beer,” Singh recalls. “Talk about this and that stuff. She used to come my to apartment, and we stay two, three years, then we got married.”

Andrew Thomson, a maintenance worker on Roosevelt Island, lives around the corner from Singh’s old deli; his father Eddie, who died recently from a heart attack, was best man at Singh’s wedding. “He met her working at the store, you know?” says Thomson, who attended the reception. “She was just a neighborhood lady; they became good friends, and they took it from there. . . . It happens, you know? People fall in love. Like I said, you don’t even have to be the same color—you can be the same sex nowadays and it’s all right. But he was in love with that girl, I know that.”

In 2000, Singh applied for permanent-resident status based on his marriage, but the process was slow, and years went by without any progress. Meanwhile, he gave up on the deli and started driving a cab around town. He met his friend Gujral Grewal while on the job, and the two of them decided to buy a business together. “We went to Alabama to look for businesses; we looked for businesses all over. I traveled all over with him,” Grewal says. “We just wanted to run a small business. None of us could buy it by ourselves. So we just pooled it together to start it that way. It’s what immigrants do. We were looking at gas stations or grocery stores.”

But then Singh’s mother died, and he had to lay her to rest in Punjab. His friends warned him that in the wake of 9/11, it might not be the best time to be a South Asian walking around in airports. “We told him not to go during that time, because of what was happening with the government,” Thomson says. “But if you were told your mother was dying and this was the last time you could see her, what would you do?” Singh got permission from the federal government to leave the country, and off he went.

On April 15, 2002, Singh flew back to JFK, where his wife was waiting to pick him up. But an immigration official began to ask Singh questions about his marriage. Hours went by, and Laura demanded to know why her husband was being detained. Over a speakerphone, he heard officials threaten her with prison for participating in a sham marriage.

ICE officials refused to comment on Singh’s case because there is still an outstanding deportation case against him. “It’s ICE policy not to comment on any aspect of file information for a case that is before a court,” says spokesman Mark Thorn. But according to immigration-court documents, the immigration officer found numerous discrepancies between Singh’s account of the marriage and his wife’s. In addition, the officer called Singh’s home number and reached someone named “Victor,” who claimed he lived there. According to Singh, that was actually his friend Nirvail Singh, who was visiting the couple but didn’t speak English very well and misunderstood the officer’s questions. The officer concluded that the marriage was a fraud and ordered Singh deported. Singh says that he then spent 48 hours chained to a chair.

“I cannot use the bathroom,” he says. “The next day, the officer come. . . . He say, ‘OK, what you decide? You have to go back.’ I say I not decide to go back. I have to see wife. I have to see my lawyer. He say OK. And he not do anything for next day, next shift. . . . I can’t sleep, I can’t eat anything. Forty-eight hours after that, they put me in detention center.”

Singh was in lockup at Brooklyn’s Wackenhut detention facility for months, waiting for his case to come before an immigration judge. Meanwhile, immigration officials conducted a more thorough Stokes interview (named, like the Miranda warning, after the case that created it, Stokes v. INS) of Singh and his wife, to determine whether their marriage was legitimate. During the appeal on October 9, the immigration judge reviewed the interview and ruled that the marriage was initially valid—however, he added, he found that the marriage was no longer viable. Since Singh’s official permission to leave the country and return was based on his marriage to an American citizen, and since that marriage was now fraudulent, he had lost the right to re-enter to the country and therefore would have to be deported.

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.”

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.”

Meanwhile, Singh’s deportation and permanent-resident cases continue to grind on at a glacial pace. Last month, Singh received notice from the Board of Immigration Appeals that someone had misplaced his deportation file. They’ll try to find it, the letter said, but they might just have to start the entire deportation proceeding—the Stokes interview, the examination of the family’s financial records—all over again.

Almost six years later, Narinder Singh’s nightmare may be about to return.