Give Us Your Huddled Masses... and We'll Throw 'em in a Cell

For a growing number of immigrants, detention by the INS comes down to a long and lonely stint in the Fort Lauderdale Jail

Dora Garcia grimaces when she describes as "como muerte," like death, the nearly nine months she spent in a jail cell. The Mexican immigrant then says the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) stashed her in a narrow, dingy cell she often shared with the drug abusers, prostitutes, and other street criminals in the Fort Lauderdale City Jail.

Garcia claims she only emerged from the cell for one hour each week when she and other detainees were led up to the rooftop recreation area, a bleak patch of concrete with a basketball net and a few metal picnic tables.

She wondered why she was put in a cramped city jail while under a hold by the federal government, and when the nightmare would end. INS detainees at the jail are in limbo, cut off from society and treated like criminals while they await word on their immigration cases.

Garcia, age 40, has lived in the United States for more than a dozen years without permanent resident status. Her husband repeatedly beat her, and when she finally fought back, he turned her over to the police and the INS. Detained since October 1997, she has applied for cancellation of removal under a special rule for battered spouses in the Immigration and Nationality Act. She was recently returned to the Krome Service Processing Center, the federal detention camp in southwest Miami-Dade, to plead her case before the Board of Immigration Appeals with the help of a lawyer at the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center (FIAC).

To prepare her for court, Garcia's attorney had to drive up to Fort Lauderdale from her Homestead office, and on one of those infrequent visits, she brought Garcia's nine-year-old daughter. It was the only time Garcia saw her child while at the jail. The mother went months without even speaking to her because she could only make collect calls from the jail, which neither the friends who are caring for her daughter nor FIAC's voice mail system would accept.

INS detainees who have been held at the Fort Lauderdale City Jail complain of inadequate access to lawyers and deportation officers, legal materials, exercise, and medical care, and of unsanitary conditions and mistreatment by detention officers. These and other problems are enumerated in FIAC's report, "Florida County Jails: INS' Secret Detention World."

Housing INS detainees is a lucrative proposition for jails. At $65 per person per day the Fort Lauderdale City Jail made $450,000 on its INS contract last year. That income helps to reduce overhead costs, not necessarily to pay for any special services for detainees. Commander Hank Marsh, chief administrator at the Fort Lauderdale City Jail compares the jail to a hotel, simply providing space and basic provisions for the INS detainees, who are all classified as felons at the jail.

But the jail is no place for INS detainees, contend immigrant advocates. The detainees are being held for administrative purposes, not because they are serving criminal sentences or awaiting trial on criminal charges. Even aliens with prior convictions should not be held in a criminal atmosphere if they have already served their time, says Allyson Collins, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. "The biggest problem is they don't understand what's going on, why they're sitting in jails for an extended period of time," says Collins of the detainees disconnected from the INS, and mentally and emotionally stressed by their situation. "It's an open-ended sentence."

Detention can last indefinitely while the immigration court system decides whether or not to deport immigrants and considers appeals, or the INS attempts to obtain travel documents for them from foreign countries (some of which, like Cuba, will not accept the repatriation of nationals who have been to the United States).

"Locked away" is how several of the detainees currently at the Fort Lauderdale City Jail say they feel. "They send people to hide them in the jails," says Jean Harold Jules, a stocky 24-year-old Haitian who came to South Florida on a boat as a young boy. He went to prison in 1994 for delivering cocaine and completed his sentence, but was detained six months ago and has spent the last two months at the jail. "Yeah, I made a mistake," he says, at once apologetic and indignant. "I paid for my mistake. Now let me go."

Tears slip down Julia Gomez's face and dribble along the downward tilt of her lips. She says she had been detained for six and a half months at Krome, but in the past few weeks, she has been carted back and forth between the INS compound and jails in Fort Lauderdale and Tampa. Held because of a prior crack conviction, she has little hope of returning to her adopted home in Miami, where she has lived since 1980, or to her family in Cuba.

Gomez gets claustrophobic in the jail cell. The slash marks across her forearm attest to past suicide attempts, and her desperation now is unmistakable. "I don't see why they are keeping me," her words are clipped by sobs. "I don't know what to say or do. I just want to get lost, the floor to open up and swallow me."

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