Cecile Pineda traveled to the East Coast to interview Jean Blum who volunteered in the detention centers of Passaic and Monmouth Counties in N.J. Beside documenting prison abuse, physical and verbal, inadequate diet, medical neglect, casual cruelty and disregard of their civil and human rights, Blum initiated one of the first official inquiries into the unrecorded death for lack of medical attention of immigrant detainee Tanveer Ahmad, a New York cabbie, and one of 106 such immigrant detainee deaths for lack of medical attention for which the ACLU and the New York Times obtained evidence through a Freedom of Information Act request. For the first installment of this series, click here.
"Therefore with all humbleness I am seeking your compassion by asking you please, your Honor, allow me a visit with my children. Please, your Honor, I don’t want to abandon my children due to circumstances beyond my control. I am asking you please to grant me one favor to say goodbye and don’t take my motherly rights away from me.” . . . Juliette Tucker was ordered deported without being allowed to see her children.
"DHS/ICE is breaking our families apart”
In immigrant detention, scant attention is paid to “family values.” A summary of grievances by detainees at Monmouth County [NJ] Jail dated January 16, 2006 contains the following: “Over 95% of the detainees here are New York based…. All of our families [reside] in New York. DHS/ICE…never in their minds, have they ever taken the hardship for our families to travel over “3 HOURS” (round trip) to see us. What is even [worse] is that the visit is only “15 MINUTES.”
And behind bulletproof glass, furthermore, a lot of the detainees are getting deported without being able to even hug or kiss our parents, kids, wife, etc...! [They] are being deported on a daily basis, on an unknown date. [Fifteen] minutes just for them to say “goodbye” seems really bad! It is just extreme hardship for our families to travel so far for 15 minutes only. DHS/ICE is breaking our families apart before they even try to deport us!”
Roddy Sanchez in a letter to Blum dated June 11, 2005 states: “A lot of times when night falls, I cry because I have a newborn daughter. I got my whole family out here, but when you go in front of the judge they tell you, take your family back to your country, or the judge will say they can always go on welfare….” But the dreams and hopes of most detainees with families do not include taking them back with them to their country of origin, and in many instances, family members are legitimate citizens of the United States.”
Quoted in the NJCRDC’s Voices, in May of 2004 a Sierra Leone journalist in Hudson County Jail writes: “In the event of my deportation, I am afraid that my fiancé and two kids will suffer tremendously, because they depend on me for everything. Who will provide shelter for them? Who will be their role model? Who will be concerned about them going to college? Who will feed them?”
But the display by the presiding authorities of Passaic County Jail of the kinds of casual cruelty that ripped families apart is perhaps best exemplified by two accounts cited here. Although detainees held in “administrative detention,” and not classified as criminals, their treatment is comparable to that of ordinary prisoners. Joseph Elchin’s letter addressed to Blum of June, 2005 states that, despite the repeated pleas of his sister, and the initiatives on his behalf by the public defender, he was not allowed to speak to his sister who wished to notify him that his mother was dying and had been rushed to the hospital to be placed on a ventilator. “As a matter of fact, no one from this institution ever informed me of anything. I [only] learned of the situation when I called home Monday evening.”
The Passaic County Sheriff’s department and the jail warden refused him the privilege of visiting his mother on her deathbed before she was removed from the ventilator. “Judge Guzman had denied such bedside visit stating that ‘if I wanted to pay my last respects I could do so at the funeral.’” But in fact, arrangements for him to attend his mother’s funeral were denied when, despite intercession by his sister and the Public Defender, “Judge Guzman refused to sign the order.”
The Eichin case, a criminal one, can be compared to a similar case, this one affecting an immigrant detainee. In a letter dated Sept. 26, 2005 addressed to Judge Patricia E. Henry, Juliette Tucker, who is about to be deported to Jamaica writes: “I have been in the United States for eight years and have never had any criminal involvement. As you know I have three beautiful children who need their mother. …I am pleading not so much for myself, but for my children. …Please take this plea into consideration by allowing me to take all three children with me to Jamaica….My plan is to go to Jamaica first and shortly after I send for my children….Due to this, your Honor, I will truly like to see my children before I leave on the 24 October, 2005. Therefore with all humbleness I am seeking your compassion by asking you please, your Honor, allow me a visit with my children. Please, your Honor, I don’t want to abandon my children due to my circumstances beyond my control. I am asking you please to grant me one favor to say goodbye and don’t take my motherly rights away from me.” And although Jean Blum tried to effect an intervention on her behalf, Juliette Tucker was ordered deported without being allowed to see her children.
Deportees are expelled with little more than the shirts on their backs. “Basically they are sent back to a country, not even necessarily their own,” Blum explains. “They arrive at the airport of the receiving country with no resources and no means to contact their families.” In a letter addressed to her from Kingston Jamaica dated August 2, 2005, detainee Barry Walker writes: “When they gave me the flight paper on Friday July 29, they took me straight to the airport with no notice to get any clothes or money together. Somehow I made it home here to my family and I am just breathing a bit of freedom….Because you are a person among people, I know faith will bring us together again one day.”
Prison abuse, physical and verbal, inadequate diet, medical neglect, casual cruelty and disregard of their civil and human rights discourage prisoners from fighting their deportation orders. “Many eventually give up the struggle,” says Blum, “but these may be considered the lucky ones.” Some—no one knows exactly how many—never get the chance to make that despairing choice.
The dead, the disappeared
Still unverified is another kind of Homeland Security list. In his affidavit of December 12, 2005, on behalf of his client’s imminent deportation to Syria, Shayana Kadidal cites the case of one ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Musa deported from the United States to Syria in January 2005 and who “has not been heard from since.” He includes mention of one Nabil al-Marabh, also deported to Syria in 2004 who has “not been heard from again. Amnesty sources indicate that he has been imprisoned and has been tortured.”
Although as early as 2007 the New York Times had begun drawing attention to immigrant deaths in detention, it was not until April 3, 2009 that it was able to publish an account describing how, in September of 2005 Jean Blum had received a letter addressed to the NJCRDC and copied to ALAFFA reporting the death of one “Ahmed Tender.” Written in broken English, nonetheless the message was clear enough: “Today one of the INS immigration die….No emergency, and the jail very very [careless] about INS detainees. Mr. Ahmed complain about chest pain. Before he die was saying the officer Mr. Ahmed [lie] too much. The officer say Mr. Ahmed to wait….As Mr. Ahmed arrival in the emergency room he die. So Mr. Ahmed death is need to be investigated… we care very much. Because that can happen to any one of us.”
Blum forwarded a copy to the Joint Intake Center of the Department of Homeland Security where it became the subject of an internal document from the Department of Homeland Security/ICE file dated September 26, 2005 which might never have come to light if the ACLU had not obtained it through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Request in 2008 after an in-depth inquiry by the New York Times.
The file reads: “Synopsis: On September 20, 2005, the Joint Intake Center (JIC), Washington, D.C., received a packet of correspondence from Ms. Jean Blum, President, American Liberty and Freedom for All (ALAFFA), Paterson, NJ. According to the information received, Mr. Ahmed Tander, a Pakistani detainee housed at the Monmouth County Correctional Institute, died on September 10, 2005, allegedly from a heart attack whose symptoms were obvious, severe and ignored until it was too late.”
The death of Tanveer Ahmad (the correct spelling of his name) is of unusual significance because the immigration authorities could produce no record that Mr. Ahmad had ever been detained in the first place, let alone that he had died in their custody. Without the intervention of Jean Blum, this incident might never have come to light. Tom Jawetz of the ACLU reflected on the troubling aspects of this particular case: “We still do not know and we cannot know if there are other deaths that have never been disclosed by ICE or that ICE itself knows nothing about.” Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren pleading the necessity for greater accountability to Congress wondered if failure to report this death reflected carelessness or “something more sinister.”
Said the Times (April 3, 2009): “The difficulty of confirming [Tanveer] Ahmad’s very existence showed that death could fall between the cracks in immigration detention, the hundreds of county jails, for-profit prisons and federal detention centers where more than 400,000 people a year are held while the government tries to deport them.”
Although deaths in detention were fairly frequent, prior to 2007, the only documentation available was a list cobbled together by relatives of the deceased or their advocates. As recently as 2007, it included only some 20 names. Through a FOIA request ICE eventually disclosed 62 detention deaths since 2004 but declined to provide names, dates, locations or causes until compelled to do so. By May 5, 2008, the list included 66 names. And by April 3, 2009 it stood at 92. The publication of an article listing the deaths of two more detainees, previously unreported, brought the list to 94. A sudden increase of ten more, as reported by the New York Times on August 8, 2009 brought the master list to 104 and then 106, where it stands today.
An examination of the statistical information for 2005 at Passaic County Jail lists 75 suicide attempts in that year alone, and one “successful” suicide —number 35 on the ICE master list— which also includes one death “of natural causes,” seven deaths by hanging, 6 cases of asphyxia, 1 death by drowning, (both the latter findings raise a number of questions), and, interestingly, one cause of death, (in Corrections Corporation of America’s Elizabeth facility) that of Boubacar Bah, which was initially listed as “brain hemorrhage, fractured skull” and is now listed as “undetermined.” One death is attributed to electrocution. According to a New York Times article dated May 5, 2008, the detainee, Mr. Cesar Gonzalez-Baeza, was operating a jackhammer that hit a power line. Such an unusual cause of death raises an interesting question: what was an immigrant detainee doing operating a jackhammer?
Detainee Gonzalez-Baeza’s death (and Ruth Jean-Baptiste’s accident while washing floors cited earlier) may have been related to the decades-old practice of leasing out cheap prison labor in American jails and detention centers to private corporations. There have been attempts by Congress—such as the Hawes Cooper Act (effective 1934) and the Ashurst-Sumner Act, (1935) which tried to eliminate prison-plantations and ‘factories with fences’; but by 1990, with their repeal, it became permissible for prisoners to produce products entering the stream of interstate commerce. According to Andrew Bosworth, an assistant professor of Government at the University of Texas at Brownsville, “many of the largest corporations in America have exploited prison labor in what might be called ‘Operation Sweatshop.’ Starbucks, Microsoft, Boeing, Victoria’s Secret and other companies have participated in prison labor programs.”
The concluding Part IV of this series appears next Sunday.
Jean Blum is the subject of a documentary by Janice Weber entitled "Janina's Letters," which will appear soon.