DETAINED: Undocumented and Imprisoned in America

+ About the project

Venture down the winding, cratered truck routes of an industrial wasteland, where smokestacks sprout from vast plains of concrete, airplanes in ascent nearly skim the sagging power lines, and workers sit alone in rest-stop diners gazing out grimy windows that frame this barren landscape just beyond the New Jersey Turnpike.

Not far from a here, a young woman treads slowly through the wide passageways of Terminal A, the rhythmic sway of her gait is steady and determined, her head held high, the bold pattern of her ankle-length cotton dress starkly contrasts the sterile halls of the airport. In one hand she clutches a passport bearing the name of a country she knows she will not return to anytime soon — her country, Burkina Faso. In her purse, a manila envelope containing prepped documents for an asylum application. She approaches the officer at border control, shows her passport and student visa, and in a soft voice, tinged with French vowels and West African cadence, and laden with longing for refuge from the domestic violence she has fled, she asks for asylum.

Asylum seekers are given no forewarning of the American immigrant detention system. They do not yet know how they may be questioned for hours in the cramped Customs office, without the aid of a translator. They do not yet know how they may be coerced into signing away their freedom, and shipped to a detention facility in an isolated area. They do not yet know how they may owe thousands to an immigration lawyer, wait months for bureaucracy to dredge on, and have their case rescheduled for lack of evidence. They do not yet know how it may become impossible to speak to family in their home country because calling cards in detention are fraudulently overpriced. They do not yet know how they may miss the birth of nieces and nephews, or even their firstborn child (alien relatives can only be petitioned for by Green Card holders, and even then, it is a process that can take years).. They do not yet know, and may never know, how all immigrant detention centers are privately owned, and fulfill a contract which mandates that 34,000 beds must be filled at all times by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). They do not yet know, nor do the American people know, that the two largest private prison corporations, CCA and GEO group, majorly influence political lobbying on immigration law and are grossing investments for many US banks, universities and other institutions. They do not yet know that they will not breathe fresh air or see the sky again for months, or in some cases, years.

A discrete sign bearing the letters CCA in red stands before a large warehouse. The Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) is the largest private prison company in the country, and its immigrant detention facility in Elizabeth, New Jersey holds over 300 men and women. A second immigrant detention center called Delaney Hall, owned by the GEO group, sits adjacent to a prison and a nuclear power plant just fifteen minutes away. This is where Michou, a 28 year old woman from Burkina Faso, waits for her freedom. Each year more than 400,000 asylum seekers, undocumented and documented immigrants are forced into the American immigrant detention system.

(Delaney Hall closed in 2016 and inmates were transferred to neighboring detention facilities)

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 Micheline is from Burkina Faso in West Africa. She was forced to flee her country to escape an abusive marriage. Women in Burkina Faso are in many ways oppressed, for example, female genital mutilation is still common practice. She flew to New York in December of 2014 with a U.S. visa. Declaring asylum at border control, she was immediately apprehended, coerced to sign documents without a translator and taken to an immigrant detention facility in an isolated, industrial area of New Jersey. The authorities told her they were taking her “someplace safe." She spent the next 7 months in confinement.

Micheline is from Burkina Faso in West Africa. She was forced to flee her country to escape an abusive marriage. Women in Burkina Faso are in many ways oppressed, for example, female genital mutilation is still common practice. She flew to New York in December of 2014 with a U.S. visa. Declaring asylum at border control, she was immediately apprehended, coerced to sign documents without a translator and taken to an immigrant detention facility in an isolated, industrial area of New Jersey. The authorities told her they were taking her “someplace safe." She spent the next 7 months in confinement.

 
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 Obi* is from Nigeria. Boko Haram murdered his father and close friend, and he was forced to flee. He traveled by ship from Cameroon to Panama then followed smugglers through Central America until reaching the U.S.-Mexico border. Robbed and badly beaten along the way, he received medical attention at the border, and was then sent to an immigrant detention facility in Elizabeth, New Jersey. He was in detention for nearly a year before being granted asylum. He now shares an apartment in Newark, New Jersey with two other formerly detained asylees.

Obi* is from Nigeria. Boko Haram murdered his father and close friend, and he was forced to flee. He traveled by ship from Cameroon to Panama then followed smugglers through Central America until reaching the U.S.-Mexico border. Robbed and badly beaten along the way, he received medical attention at the border, and was then sent to an immigrant detention facility in Elizabeth, New Jersey. He was in detention for nearly a year before being granted asylum. He now shares an apartment in Newark, New Jersey with two other formerly detained asylees.

 
 Bryan is from Honduras. Just 18 years old, he crossed the US-Mexico border alone in 2015 in the hope of reuniting with his mother, who had recently emigrated to California. It would be a long and dangerous journey for anyone, but even more so for Bryan, who was born with a disability that causes him to walk with a limp. At the border he was apprehended and sent to an immigrant detention facility in New Jersey. He faced constant bullying and threats in detention because of his condition, and with pressure from a local NGO, he was released and allowed to join his mother.

Bryan is from Honduras. Just 18 years old, he crossed the US-Mexico border alone in 2015 in the hope of reuniting with his mother, who had recently emigrated to California. It would be a long and dangerous journey for anyone, but even more so for Bryan, who was born with a disability that causes him to walk with a limp. At the border he was apprehended and sent to an immigrant detention facility in New Jersey. He faced constant bullying and threats in detention because of his condition, and with pressure from a local NGO, he was released and allowed to join his mother.

 
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 Denise was born in Jamaica, but grew up in New York City, where she lives today. It has been many years since she was in immigrant detention, but she still suffers financial and emotional consequences today. It was not until she became involved with her former partner (the father of her two children) that she felt the implications of her immigrant status. He was jailed for narcotics possession, and she became embroiled in the case. Charged with aiding and abetting, she spent four years in federal prison. Once released, she was immediately transferred to an immigrant detention facility in Kearny, New Jersey, a decision which violated the agreement of her prison release. She spent the next two years in detention, struggling to settle her case. During her time in confinement, her young son was sent to Jamaica to stay with relatives. They now live together, but as an adult, he has aggression issues and their relationship is strained.  

Denise was born in Jamaica, but grew up in New York City, where she lives today. It has been many years since she was in immigrant detention, but she still suffers financial and emotional consequences today. It was not until she became involved with her former partner (the father of her two children) that she felt the implications of her immigrant status. He was jailed for narcotics possession, and she became embroiled in the case. Charged with aiding and abetting, she spent four years in federal prison. Once released, she was immediately transferred to an immigrant detention facility in Kearny, New Jersey, a decision which violated the agreement of her prison release. She spent the next two years in detention, struggling to settle her case. During her time in confinement, her young son was sent to Jamaica to stay with relatives. They now live together, but as an adult, he has aggression issues and their relationship is strained.  

 
 Samri is from Eritrea in East Africa. She speaks the native language Tigrinya. Facing religious persecution, she fled  her country in early 2015.  Her journey to America was long and extremely perilous. Her family and church helped her purchase a ticket, and she flew to Brazil, where  smugglers led her across the country. She walked four days in a small group to cross the Amazon River, which has currents so strong that many die in the process. She then traveled through Peru and north, to Central America, until finally reaching the Mexican border. Much of the journey was on foot, and she faced risks traveling alone as a young female. She was apprehended at the US-Mexico border, and was sent to an immigrant detention facility in California, and then transferred to a facility in New Jersey where she remained 4 months until granted asylum. She is now living temporarily with nuns at a convent in New Jersey.

Samri is from Eritrea in East Africa. She speaks the native language Tigrinya. Facing religious persecution, she fled her country in early 2015. Her journey to America was long and extremely perilous. Her family and church helped her purchase a ticket, and she flew to Brazil, where  smugglers led her across the country. She walked four days in a small group to cross the Amazon River, which has currents so strong that many die in the process. She then traveled through Peru and north, to Central America, until finally reaching the Mexican border. Much of the journey was on foot, and she faced risks traveling alone as a young female. She was apprehended at the US-Mexico border, and was sent to an immigrant detention facility in California, and then transferred to a facility in New Jersey where she remained 4 months until granted asylum. She is now living temporarily with nuns at a convent in New Jersey.

 
 Noel is from Kenya and has lived in America for the past 25 years; his entire adult life. He had a career, a home, a relationship and many friends in NJ before he was apprehended by police three years ago for purportedly using a stolen NY Metrocard. Unfortunately, his undocumented status in the country left him vulnerable, and he was placed in immigrant detention. After a year awaiting trial, he was denied legal residency in America and was sentenced deportation to Kenya, a country he had not seen since he was a child. He appealed his case, reverting to the library of the detention facility for legal documents and support. Ultimately, his appeal was granted. He was in immigrant detention for three years. Just a few weeks after his release, the decision was overturned and he was again sentenced to deportation. He is now lives with a friend and awaits another trial.

Noel is from Kenya and has lived in America for the past 25 years; his entire adult life. He had a career, a home, a relationship and many friends in NJ before he was apprehended by police three years ago for purportedly using a stolen NY Metrocard. Unfortunately, his undocumented status in the country left him vulnerable, and he was placed in immigrant detention. After a year awaiting trial, he was denied legal residency in America and was sentenced deportation to Kenya, a country he had not seen since he was a child. He appealed his case, reverting to the library of the detention facility for legal documents and support. Ultimately, his appeal was granted. He was in immigrant detention for three years. Just a few weeks after his release, the decision was overturned and he was again sentenced to deportation. He is now lives with a friend and awaits another trial.

 
 Ansumana is from Gambia. He is 24 years old, and was orphaned since he was a young child, living with his uncle’s family. He came to America seeking asylum, and was unprepared for the amount of evidence he would have to provide to support his case. From detention it was nearly impossible to reach friends or family in Gambia to ask for help because he had no money for calling cards, which have significantly inflated prices from inside detention. After months awaiting trial, his lawyer abandoned his case because of his lack of evidence. He found another lawyer, but his case was delayed 6 months. During his time in detention he became increasingly depressed and frustrated with his situation. He was released in Spring 2016 after over a year in detention. He was granted asylum, and now lives with distant relatives in Pennsylvania. 

Ansumana is from Gambia. He is 24 years old, and was orphaned since he was a young child, living with his uncle’s family. He came to America seeking asylum, and was unprepared for the amount of evidence he would have to provide to support his case. From detention it was nearly impossible to reach friends or family in Gambia to ask for help because he had no money for calling cards, which have significantly inflated prices from inside detention. After months awaiting trial, his lawyer abandoned his case because of his lack of evidence. He found another lawyer, but his case was delayed 6 months. During his time in detention he became increasingly depressed and frustrated with his situation. He was released in Spring 2016 after over a year in detention. He was granted asylum, and now lives with distant relatives in Pennsylvania.