DETAINED: Undocumented and Imprisoned in America

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Each year more than 400,000 refugees and undocumented immigrants are put in immigrant detention centers across America. In Northern New Jersey alone there are five detention centers that, combined, hold over 2,000 people every day. Detention centers are “for profit” meaning that the two major private corporations, CCA and GEO group, have contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in which they have an established number of beds (currently 33,400 beds) that need to be filled each day at a cost of $166 per person, per day. They earn billions each year in taxpayer money; banks, corporations and educational institutions have stock invested (Bank of America, Wells Fargo, General Electric, Columbia University before “Columbia Prison Divest”), and consequently, they have major sway in political lobbying, pushing for legislation that will put more immigrants behind bars, thus increase their profits. The word “detention” is truly a euphemism for prison - the NJ facilities are either inside or adjacent to federal prisons, and the conditions and treatment can be worse than prison because “rehabilitation” programs are infrequent to non-existent (no academic, career or hobby classes offered), in certain facilities there is no real outdoor access, medical care is often neglected and ill-treatment of immigrant prisoners (like solitary confinement for prolonged periods) is easily overlooked.

The majority of people in detention are not criminals, though they are treated as such. Many refugees are picked up by ICE at the border crossing, or by customs at the airport at the moment they declare asylum. Undocumented immigrants residing in the United States, even for 20 or 30 years, with families and jobs, are apprehended after minor offenses, traffic accidents, and even more controversially, in ICE raids in their homes and schools. Minors are no exception to detention and are often put in adult facilities, and children are placed in “Family” detention centers. American bureaucracy is slow - court cases constantly get pushed back - there is a severe lack of pro bono lawyers, and most asylum seekers cannot afford the $7-10,000 cost of an immigration lawyer. As a result, many people rest in the detention system for a year or more, their only “out” is self-deportation. This system is created so that private companies make a huge profit, certain politicians gain influence with PAC donations and anti-immigration platforms, and immigrants are forced to choose self-deportation.

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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.