Cecile Pineda traveled to the East Coast to interview Jean Blum. Blum is a Holocaust survivor whose memories of being hidden from the Nazis and living her early years as a traumatically displaced person motivated her to start ALAFFA, an organization devoted to helping immigrants incarcerated in the immigrant detention centers of Passaic and Monmouth Counties in New Jersey, who are held in “administrative detention” a provision of a 1996 law which deprives them of the right to legal representation. Below begins the first segment of her report to appear each Saturday.
Her hands working constantly, Jean Blum loops yarn over the pins of her knitting bobbin; the spool pays out the makings of a fashionable red scarf. Behind her as she talks, a conservatory of exotic plants catches the sunlight, bouncing it off an abstract painting on the wall. Jean Blum is a short woman, standing barely five feet tall, with a sharp mind, given to rich imaginings.
Immigrant detention centers, now over 300, are located throughout the United States--federally run jails, county facilities, some run by private operator Corrections Corporation of America and Wackenhut, doing business under the sanitized name the Geo Group. They house more than 400,000 persons, almost all immigrants, and with few exceptions, people of color.
Her photograph, taken against a backdrop of the Monmouth County Correctional Institution in an article dated April 3, 2009, by Nina Bernstein of the New York Times, shows a forlorn looking woman, a woman identified as a Holocaust survivor, founder of an immigrant detainee advocacy organization American Liberty and Freedom for All, or ALAFFA.
On a first viewing, I wondered who she was. What drove her to engage for many months in such discouraging and thankless work? Was it her memories of her World War II experiences as a displaced person? Had those memories been put aside as she lived an early life described in the article as closely modeled on the American Dream? Did love have anything to do with it?
“When I was maybe six years old, my mother warned me, ‘you have to go away for a while, but you must never forget that you are a Jewish child. You must remember not to tell anyone, because if you do, terrible things will happen to you and to your parents.’” Jean Blum pauses to unravel the tangling red scarf before continuing with our interview.
“The next day my teacher—one of the unsung heroes of the French Resistance—spirited me away to a convent where I lived with other girls whom I discovered much later were also Jewish.” When Blum’s mother came to take her back, although Blum failed to recognize her--“I never thought I would ever see her again,” she explains--the gravity of her mother’s admonition never left her.
Jean Blum in her living room
photo credit Janice Weber
photo credit Janice Weber
Now 73, Blum was born in Warsaw, an only child, whose father was an electrical engineer. The Polish government charged him and an engineering colleague with designing and overseeing the installation of the telephone and telegraph communication system for the country of Poland. The first week of September, 1939 immediately after the first German bombs fell on Warsaw, her father received a phone call in the middle of the night from the Office of the President of Poland ordering him and his electrical engineering colleague to show up at the bus depot at six A.M. with their wives, their children and one suitcase for each family. They were allowed to escape, not because the Poles were particularly concerned for the family as endangered Jews, but because her father possessed the information they needed to deactivate the system he and his colleague had designed so that it would not fall into German hands.
After conducting them to Romania where they debriefed the two engineers, they left them to shift for themselves. Stranded in Romania, Jean’s father began making the rounds of all the embassies in Bucharest searching for a country willing to take them—to no avail. Finally, through their embassy, the French government made him a deal: if he agreed to join the French forces, Jean and her mother would be permitted to travel to Nice, where they would be allowed to stay throughout the duration of the war. Her father, however, would fight with the French. But after the fall of the collaborationist Vichy government he was captured by the Germans. He was sent to a P.O.W. camp, and as a prisoner of war he escaped the almost certain extermination that awaited most European Jews in the death camps.
“The Germans treated him better than Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) treats our American Immigrant Detainees here in the U.S.,” says Jean Blum. “These are people who work hard, many of them heads of families, trying to better themselves, striving for their piece of the American dream, as all of us did. My father loved America; he believed in America because this was the only country that would take us in at war’s end. I am glad he didn’t live to see what’s happening now.”
Although American public attention is still focused on the horrors of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, the existence of a growing number of domestic immigrant detention centers still largely remains under the radar. There are now over 300, located throughout the United States, some federally run jails, some County facilities, some run by such private operators as Corrections Corporation of America and Wackenhut, now doing business under the sanitized name of the Geo Group. They house a total of more than 400,000 persons, almost all of them immigrants, and with few exceptions, people of color. Prior to the elections of 2008, these institutions were subject to little or no government oversight, and even now under the aegis of Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano, the new administration is not showing signs of producing much in the way of change.
Blum remembers the limbo state that people displaced by World War II experienced. When at war’s end, her mother and father were reunited, no country was willing to take the family in until, through the intercession of her father’s brother, Sholem Asch, the family was permitted to enter the United States by way of a special Act of Congress. Used to a pre-war life of relative comfort, they found themselves living on the fifth floor of a roach infested Bronx walk-up apartment. Her father repeatedly had to scramble for work, first as the employee of a brother who owned a record company. Her mother found work as a fabric picker. Left at home alone, and overwhelmed by the adjustment to a new school where she spoke no English, Jean cried incessantly. One day her father came across Margaret Bourke White’s photographs of the concentration camps taken at the time of the liberation. He carefully cut them out of Life Magazine and taped them to the walls of Jean’s bedroom. “These are the people who have something to cry about,” he told her, “nothing happened to you.”
“We fear for our lives…”
The pictures of WWII concentration camp survivors remained on Jean’s wall for a limited period of time, but they never left her imagination. When Blum first discovered that there was a New Jersey-based advocacy organization, the New Jersey Civil Rights Defense Committee (NJCRDC), that tracked incarcerated detainees, she was quick to join.
Shortly before the Memorial Day Weekend in 2005, NJCRDC had fielded a call on its hot line from an inmate reporting that there had been a violent incident at the Passaic County Jail in Paterson where a number of detainees were being held. But with the holiday approaching, there was no one available to investigate. True to form, Blum stepped up to the plate. “I had a habit of volunteering when I saw a need,” she says, “and from that moment, I was hooked.” Her first report, running to four pages, documents the statements of four detainees who described being repeatedly roughed up, beaten, seriously injured, and verbally abused by guards.
“This [summary] of the events of May 26…starting at 8:20 P.M. [combines] information from Luis Ortiz, Willy Hernandez, and Nguyen Vu. [Vu] had asked another inmate to have his girlfriend mail him a musical birthday card that he wanted to send to his wife. When…Corporal C. Jimenez handed out the mail, she …wanted to remove the musical portion of the card. Nguyen…asked her to leave [it] on because he was sending it to his wife. Corporal Jimenez yelled, ‘No, I can’t do that. This card does not belong to you.’ He replied…‘no, this card belongs to me.’ She continued yelling… that she would call the Sergeant or the Captain...’ He answered ‘I don’t care who you call over because this card is mine.’
“A few minutes later Sergeant J. Arturi came in, plus ‘about 5 or 10’ other officers…. They told the prisoners to face the bars, aiming chemical spray inches from their faces. All the…reports agree: ‘they grabbed Nguyen Vu by the arm and the neck. He was pushed, shoved, slapped, punched down the hallway in sight of…two units returning from recreation, until they got him down the hall where they closed the door so the others could not see. NGUYEN STATES 2 VIDEO CAMERAS TAPED WHAT HAPPENED THERE….
“…The sergeant…slammed his head into the wall where it started to bleed. [Vu] felt dizzy. Three or more officers ‘pushed me to the ground, started punching me, pulled me up, handcuffed me and took me to the Medical Unit.’ He was ‘so upset and scared’ that all he wanted was to be left alone and [he] refused medication. Then they …strip searched him…and threw him into the hole…. [In all] he requested meds or a doctor four times over four days, to no avail. The next day two officers took him to a hearing telling him he was charged with Attempt to Assault. He was found innocent and the case was dismissed….
“[The inmates who observed the initial beating] ‘yelled, protested, banged on the tables….’ While this was going on, Hernandez ‘fixed his pants.’ Officers yelled he had a weapon in his sock that he was trying to place in his shoe. He was ‘yanked by his neck, arm and shirt over the edge of the table. He was slapped on his neck …and on his back….They continued to slap…and rough him up. They kept inquiring about a weapon, but it didn’t exist.’ Hernandez states: ‘THEY ALSO RAISED THE CAMERA,’ meaning they did not tape this incident.” Blum’s report concludes with a fourth inmate, Luiz Ortiz’ statement that for now they would suspend their hunger strike “because we fear for our lives.”
Administrative detention: (il)legal stranglehold
But Blum soon became dissatisfied with the emphasis placed by the NJCRDC on freeing all immigrant detainees based on the unconstitutionality of holding them without charge. She resigned to found ALAFFA because she preferred to concentrate her efforts on the more immediate task of helping the detainees directly and believed she would be more effective intervening at the local level. Through an umbrella organization, she obtained tax exempt status, but her efforts to secure funds to support her activities and to expand her operation were largely unsuccessful. She continued on her own, very much as a one-person operation, occasionally supported by the help of volunteers like herself.
An excerpt from an early A.L.A.F.F.A. newsletter dated November 26, 2005, speaks volumes about Blum’s sense of mission:
“A.L.A.F.F.A. cares a lot about what is happening to you.From the time Blum’s name and coordinates first became known to the prison grapevine, she began to field collect calls from detainees incarcerated in the Passaic County Jail. Besides visiting, she wrote letters on their behalf, helped them file official complaints, made contact with their families and lawyers when the jail phone lines remained blocked for long periods of time, made sure to obtain signed releases from each one of them allowing their stories to be made public, and, although she is a retiree living on the uncertain bounty of a fixed income, she gave them money, and helped them obtain food and clothing when they were released. “They called me only for legitimate problems. They never complained. In fact, I remember one conversation I had with a Nigerian to whom I observed that conditions there were abysmal. His reply was: ‘Jean, it is better than so many other places on earth.’”
—We don’t want to see people maltreated, separated from their families, be denied justice and compassion.
—We care about you because you are our neighbors, our friends, our family.
—We know that if they can do this to you today, they can do it to us tomorrow.
—We are ashamed about the disgrace to our country and the violation of our laws.”
Although immigrant detainees are arrested and held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) under the aegis of the Department of Homeland Security, it is important to understand the place they occupy within the present U.S. justice system. They are not criminals. In fact, “these are people who work hard, many of them heads of families, trying to better themselves, striving for the piece of the American dream, as all of us did,” insists Blum, but she points out that many of them will be deported anyway for past misdemeanors such as having a broken tail light, or not paying tax on a packet of cigarettes because they are being held in “administrative detention,” a provision of the Illegal Immigrant and Immigrant Responsibility (IIRIRA) Act of 1996 which under Title III denies them the right of appeal such that they can be removed without judicial oversight.
Whereas under the constitution, not only citizens, but all persons are accorded the right to defend themselves before a court of law, under the provisions of “administrative detention” an entire group of people—mostly poor and almost all persons of color—has been denied that right. In fact, although mostly staffed by Caucasians, the detention system holds persons primarily from Central and South American countries, the Caribbean, Africa, and the Middle and Far East. “The entire ICE operation is in violation of the U.S. Constitution,” Blum points out, “so they excuse it by saying that [the Constitution] only applies to U.S. citizens—yeah, like being a little bit pregnant.” Not only does “administrative detention” establish and perpetuate a dangerous parallel, unconstitutional system of punishment, but once the law is compromised, it may be used to apply to any other demographic group.
Part II of this series continues here.
Jean Blum is the subject of a documentary by Janice Weber titled "Janina's Letters" which will appear soon.