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

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."

During his 18 months in INS custody, Akhter Moughal has witnessed the changes detention and jail time have wrought on fellow detainees. "I have seen guys come here in their senses: talking good, walking good. But months later, they're taking depression pills. I see them in the yard, walking like this," he adopts a dejected posture, hunching forward and shuffling his feet. "They just break up inside."

The 41-year-old Pakistani recently spent a month and a half at the jail, which was designed for short-term incarceration. Other INS detainees have stayed at the jail for up to a year, though Commander Marsh says the average is about 90 days. The jail has been housing INS detainees since 1991, and in the past few years, has held an average of 20 detainees at a time; last week there were eight.

About 60 percent of INS detainees in Florida and nationwide are currently being housed in jails, due to a lack of space in its nine federal detention camps. Florida has more than 1000 detainees, but only 400 beds in the state's sole service processing center, Krome, so the overflow is bused to nine jails around the state.

Immigrants detained by the INS typically fall into three categories: those who attempted to enter the country illegally (some of whom are seeking asylum), those who are here illegally, and those who have been convicted of a crime in the United States and have served their sentences. The last type, dubbed "criminal aliens," are taking up more and more of the available space for detainment under the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. The law requires mandatory detention of any alien who has been convicted of an aggravated felony, which includes any crime that could carry a sentence of at least one year.

The INS' continued reliance on jails has brought criticism, and allegations of neglect and abuse. Garcia, who speaks little English, says that in early July, as she struggled to translate a question posed by an officer at the Fort Lauderdale City Jail, the officer hit her in the arm, leaving her flesh bruised and swollen for days. Such allegations are difficult to substantiate, and are refuted by Commander Marsh. A recent supervised tour of the jail revealed facilities that are dismal, but not appalling. Guarded by crisscrossed metal bars, each oblong cell contains metal picnic tables, a telephone and television, metal bunkbeds, and sinks, toilet and shower stall.

The jail is, after all, designed for short-term detention of prowlers, prostitutes, small-time thieves, and others who violate city ordinances. "Jails are not supposed to be nice places," says Marsh, surveying the view from the rooftop he insists all inmates visit three times a week, weather permitting. "We don't want them to come back."

Getting out of the jail is a constant concern for detainees held there, but they say they feel helpless to facilitate their removal or even express their frustrations to INS officials. Jean Harold Jules says he has not seen his deportation officer since he has been at the jail. "Once you're here, you're basically lost."

Contact Margery Gordon at her e-mail address: [email protected]

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Margery Gordon