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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.

Micheline is from Burkina Faso in West Africa. She speaks French and Moré. In December 2014, with a valid U.S. visa in hand, she came by plane to New York, where she was immediately apprehended by customs after declaring asylum, and was coerced into signing documents in English, without a translator. Telling her they would bring her “someplace safe,” she was transported to the Delaney Hall detention center in Newark, NJ. The facility faces the Essex County prison and is adjacent to the Newark power plant. For the next 7 months, depressed and scared, she waited until she was granted asylum and released in May 2015. In that period she had minimal phone contact with family and did not go outside. University educated, with a stable job at a multi-national company, she saw a bleak future amid growing terrorism and political unrest in her country, but her main reason for leaving was to escape an abusive marriage.

Micheline is from Burkina Faso in West Africa. She speaks French and Moré. In December 2014, with a valid U.S. visa in hand, she came by plane to New York, where she was immediately apprehended by customs after declaring asylum, and was coerced into signing documents in English, without a translator. Telling her they would bring her “someplace safe,” she was transported to the Delaney Hall detention center in Newark, NJ. The facility faces the Essex County prison and is adjacent to the Newark power plant. For the next 7 months, depressed and scared, she waited until she was granted asylum and released in May 2015. In that period she had minimal phone contact with family and did not go outside. University educated, with a stable job at a multi-national company, she saw a bleak future amid growing terrorism and political unrest in her country, but her main reason for leaving was to escape an abusive marriage.

Michou (her nickname) in her first bedroom in America, three weeks after her release from detention. A local church is hosting her here.

Michou (her nickname) in her first bedroom in America, three weeks after her release from detention. A local church is hosting her here.

Michou poses outside of the Hudson County Correctional Facility where both immigrant and non-immigrant prisoners are held. 

Michou poses outside of the Hudson County Correctional Facility where both immigrant and non-immigrant prisoners are held. 

A document used as evidence in Micheline's court case. Women in Burkina Faso are in many ways oppressed, for example, female genital mutilation is common practice. Micheline left her country to escape an abusive marriage.

A document used as evidence in Micheline's court case. Women in Burkina Faso are in many ways oppressed, for example, female genital mutilation is common practice. Micheline left her country to escape an abusive marriage.

Denise is born in Jamaica, but grew up in New York and lives there today. Her immigration issues began later in life when her then-husband, father of her two children, was jailed for possession with intent to distribute, and as a result, she was charged for aiding and abetting. Claiming innocence, as a non-citizen she could do little to affirm it, and was sentenced to four years in federal prison. During that time, her very young son was sent to relatives in Jamaica. Once released from prison, Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) immediately sent her to the HCCC Immigrant Detention in Kearny, NJ, disregarding her release agreement, which specified against it. She spent the next two years struggling to settle her case, until a new lawyer helped her gain freedom.

Denise is born in Jamaica, but grew up in New York and lives there today. Her immigration issues began later in life when her then-husband, father of her two children, was jailed for possession with intent to distribute, and as a result, she was charged for aiding and abetting. Claiming innocence, as a non-citizen she could do little to affirm it, and was sentenced to four years in federal prison. During that time, her very young son was sent to relatives in Jamaica. Once released from prison, Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) immediately sent her to the HCCC Immigrant Detention in Kearny, NJ, disregarding her release agreement, which specified against it. She spent the next two years struggling to settle her case, until a new lawyer helped her gain freedom.

Released from detention, Denise and her son went to live with her estranged mother, who had abandoned her as a child. Her mother lived in squalid conditions, and Denise needed a way out. However, she found it impossible to find work as a convicted felon. After a year-long search (or more), and a brief stint cleaning public restrooms, she broke down crying at an interview for a domestic worker role at a NY Hospital. Her interviewer saw she was a good, honest worker, and advocated for her to get the job. She has been working there since, and is grateful for her job, despite the long hours on her feet. She shares an apartment with her son.

Released from detention, Denise and her son went to live with her estranged mother, who had abandoned her as a child. Her mother lived in squalid conditions, and Denise needed a way out. However, she found it impossible to find work as a convicted felon. After a year-long search (or more), and a brief stint cleaning public restrooms, she broke down crying at an interview for a domestic worker role at a NY Hospital. Her interviewer saw she was a good, honest worker, and advocated for her to get the job. She has been working there since, and is grateful for her job, despite the long hours on her feet. She shares an apartment with her son.

Holding old photos of her daughter (left; on left) and son (right). After Denise's release her son returned from Jamaica, but she says he was never the same after the experience. He had lived six years of his childhood without her in a foreign country, and had become a tough and wary kid. As a young adult he is troublesome and refuses to work, though sweet pictures of him line the hall of their home. Denise has contact with his older sister, but not a close relationship.

Holding old photos of her daughter (left; on left) and son (right). After Denise's release her son returned from Jamaica, but she says he was never the same after the experience. He had lived six years of his childhood without her in a foreign country, and had become a tough and wary kid. As a young adult he is troublesome and refuses to work, though sweet pictures of him line the hall of their home. Denise has contact with his older sister, but not a close relationship.

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Samri is from Eritrea in East Africa. She speaks the native language Tigrinya. Facing religious persecution as a recent convert to the Pentecostal church in a majority Coptic Christian nation that forbids many other religions, she fled her country in early 2015. Her journey to America was long and extremely perilous. She flew alone to Brazil (her family and church helped her obtain a ticket), where  smugglers led her across the country by car, bus and foot. She walked four days in a small group to cross the Amazon River, which has currents so strong that many migrants die in the process (one man was bitten by a poisonous snake while crossing and died). 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 the additional risk as a young female traveling alone in a foreign country with no money, completely dependent on smuggler groups. She was apprehended at the California-Mexican border, and was immediately placed in a CA immigrant detention center. She was then transferred to the Delaney Hall detention center in Newark, NJ and remained 4 months until granted asylum. She is now living temporarily with nuns at a convent in NJ.

Samri is from Eritrea in East Africa. She speaks the native language Tigrinya. Facing religious persecution as a recent convert to the Pentecostal church in a majority Coptic Christian nation that forbids many other religions, she fled her country in early 2015. Her journey to America was long and extremely perilous. She flew alone to Brazil (her family and church helped her obtain a ticket), where  smugglers led her across the country by car, bus and foot. She walked four days in a small group to cross the Amazon River, which has currents so strong that many migrants die in the process (one man was bitten by a poisonous snake while crossing and died). 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 the additional risk as a young female traveling alone in a foreign country with no money, completely dependent on smuggler groups. She was apprehended at the California-Mexican border, and was immediately placed in a CA immigrant detention center. She was then transferred to the Delaney Hall detention center in Newark, NJ and remained 4 months until granted asylum. She is now living temporarily with nuns at a convent in NJ.

Samri, in her first bedroom in America at a convent in New Jersey. She is hosted by a group of mostly elderly nuns who sometimes host new immigrants. They try to include her in their activities, and they share every meal together.

Samri, in her first bedroom in America at a convent in New Jersey. She is hosted by a group of mostly elderly nuns who sometimes host new immigrants. They try to include her in their activities, and they share every meal together.

The convent has a small chapel. Samri wants to eventually find a Pentecostal church in the area once she feels more settled.

The convent has a small chapel. Samri wants to eventually find a Pentecostal church in the area once she feels more settled.

The Delaney Hall detention center in Newark New Jersey, a 1,200 bed facility. It is run by private company, CEC, which has close ties to NJ governor Chris Christie and the Essex County executive. Essex County makes huge profits from Delaney and the adjacent Essex County Correctional Facility, expecting up to $200 million from the federal government for housing immigrants and inmates in both facilities. On the right (smokestacks) is the Newark power plant.

The Delaney Hall detention center in Newark New Jersey, a 1,200 bed facility. It is run by private company, CEC, which has close ties to NJ governor Chris Christie and the Essex County executive. Essex County makes huge profits from Delaney and the adjacent Essex County Correctional Facility, expecting up to $200 million from the federal government for housing immigrants and inmates in both facilities. On the right (smokestacks) is the Newark power plant.