Detained of Dissapeared?

Before the 9/11 round-ups, INS detention had already grown into a system handling 150,000 immigrants a year. Tram Nguyen looks for the connections

By Tram Nguyen Jun 15, 2002

Before the 9/11 round-ups, INS detention had already grown into a system handling 150,000 immigrants a year. Tram Nguyen looks for the connections

Paterson, New Jersey. The bus pulls to a stop a block away from Passaic County Jail. My companions, Fernando Reals, a Puerto Rican activist, and Shubh Mathur, a doctoral student from India–regular visitors to immigrant detainees–have tried to prep me during our ride. "Don’t let them see you taking paper into the visiting room," Shubh says. Fernando says that he usually hides a nonmetallic pen in his shoe to take notes once inside. But my mind wanders.

The vague highway outlines I see through the dirty bus window add to the illusion that I’m somewhere else. I remember the smells of sick, sweaty men and my mother passing me and my sister over to one of them. My well-behaved older sister, aged five, stood still and let him hold her. I ran. Neither one of us remembered our father, imprisoned for two years in a re-education camp outside of Ho Chi Minh City.

I try to focus as we get off the bus in Jersey. Fernando says we should be prepared for a time allotment of anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour. He adds, "It’s unpredictable what will happen."

Since 9/11

Fernando and Shubh’s group, Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), estimates that there are at least 390 people in Passaic County Jail, from 100 to 200 in Hudson County Jail, and another 50 or so in Middlesex County Jail. Most of the 9/11 detainees are concentrated in the New Jersey and New York area. In a recent release, the Department of Justice claimed that the total number of people still being held is down to 327. But DRUM organizers, through their own contacts with families of detainees, disagree. "There are at least 1,000 still being held in just New Jersey," says Monami Maulik, DRUM’s director.

In Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center, at least 50 detainees picked up since 9/11 are held under bright lights 24-hours a day, chained hand to foot when they leave their cells, and kept from direct sunlight for months at a time. There have been two suicide attempts reported so far.

"Detention is prison," says Subhash Kateel, who organizes DRUM’s "De-detention Campaign." "The whole sum of that experience is very violent. Every time I go in to visit, there’s at least one person who breaks down and cries."

In addition to the 9/11 detainees, the ranks of INS detainees include thousands of undocumented immigrants held for deportation, asylum seekers whose petitions weren’t granted, and legal permanent residents with criminal convictions considered deportable offenses. In a given year, about 150,000 people pass through the detention system, according to INS estimates, and about 21,000 people remain in detention camp limbo.

Criminal Alien

On the phone with Ahmad Raza, I am trying to unravel the details of his story. He has been inside Passaic for four months and 15 days. A migrant worker from Pakistan, he was a waiter on a Norwegian commercial liner before jumping ship in Galveston, Texas. Somehow, he has landed here in New Jersey where he has no friends or family.

"Sometimes, they only give you two slices of bread. I am hungry every day. No, there’s no fresh air, never. Many people are sick," he says. "I’m not bad people. I’m not a terrorist. I’m not criminal."

The present detention crisis has its roots in an expansion of enforcement policies toward immigrants that began long before September 2001. Immigrant scapegoating in the 1980s focused at first on illegal immigration and the burdens it represented for social services, jobs, and other resources supposedly being sucked up by hordes of the undocumented.

Concern over illegal immigration reached a level of obsession in the ’90s that was unmatched since the height of nativism during the ’20s, according to Joseph Nevins in his book Operation Gatekeeper. Political theater and media hype surrounding events such as the 1993 World Trade Center bombing pumped "a growing perception of a country under siege from without," Nevins wrote.

Military policing of the U.S.-Mexico border represented another arm in building an infrastructure and ideology of enforcement against immigration. And as the parameters of U.S. society narrowed even more, the "criminal alien" became significant in drawing the line between citizens and both undocumented and documented noncitizens.

In this get-tough climate, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which introduced "aggravated felony" as an expanded category of crimes requiring deportation.

"Everything passed since then has had some sort of enforcement provision," says Diego Bonesatti, policy analyst with the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. "Anti-immigration acts often try to cast immigrants in general as bringing crime, like disease, with them."

Detention Takes Off

A pair of laws in 1996 buttressed the framework that equated immigration law with criminal law. The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) re-established guilt by association for anyone supporting even lawful political or humanitarian activities of any foreign group designated by the Secretary of State as terrorist. The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) established mandatory detention for noncitizens with criminal convictions, expanding the list of offenses that made legal residents deportable to more than 50 categories of crimes. Selling marijuana, gambling, prostitution, and drunk driving are some of the crimes that count for deportation.

Together, these laws provided the underpinnings for the use of secret evidence, mandatory and indefinite detention, and toughening of criminal provisions that radically increased the number of noncitizens subject to detention and would have far-reaching implications for immigrant communities.

"They were crafting the bill like a crime bill and forcing people who were pro-immigration to put up or shut up," Bonesatti says. "Are you saying you want criminal immigrants in the country? It put immigrant advocates in a difficult position. It’s not something you can take apart in a 30-second TV spot."

Objections to immigration reform that did surface in the media focused on the individual plights of otherwise law-abiding permanent residents caught up in the system because of minor immigration violations.

"Even immigrant rights advocates were less willing to advocate for more reasoned policies regarding noncitizens with criminal records, because that might jeopardize the tenuous rights of ‘innocent’ noncitizens," says Heba Nimr, a Soros Justice Fellow at INS Watch in San Francisco.

"It was and is a seriously short-sighted strategy to distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ immigrants, because policies that arise from demonizing one sector of immigrants will ultimately hurt all immigrants."

Where Things Stand Now

Zahida Parveen closed her convenience store in Brooklyn early on an April evening to load four of her children and their grandmother into a DRUM volunteer’s car for the two-hour ride to Passaic County Jail. This was only the second time they were able to visit Parveen’s husband, Mohmmad Akram, in the five months he had been detained.

Akram, picked up by the FBI for an overstayed visa, would probably be deported, authorities had told the family. Parveen, now operating the store 12 hours a day and raising six young children, is preparing for their eventual return to Lahore, the Pakistani town they left seven years ago. She recently sent the two oldest children to stay with relatives there.

"They don’t know Urdu, they speak just English. My kids miss this country," Parveen says. The younger children don’t yet understand the family’s predicament. When she sold the family car, Parveen adds ruefully, the youngest boy yelled at her that they had to keep it for his father’s return.

"He asked on our last visit, ‘Papa when will you come home?’ My husband said, this time, this time. And now my son says, ‘It’s time, why won’t Papa come home?’"

DRUM’s hotline, set up to report and document hate crimes after 9/11, has become a crucial link to growing numbers of detainees as calls flood in to report disappeared family members and friends. Two men taking pictures of Ground Zero were reported by a private security guard to the police and INS, who then deported them to Pakistan; a Pakistani woman fumigating roaches got her door broken down and her apartment ransacked by the FBI and INS; one of the latest calls had Maulik and Kateel scrambling to find out what happened to an entire family put into detention.

"9/11 was different in scale, magnitude, specificity. But all of this was in the works before 9/11 and fully possible before then," says Kateel. "The ’96 laws allowed for what’s going on to happen, but INS didn’t have the capacity or will to do what it’s doing now."

What’s different now is that the legal and political frameworks in place have proven exceptionally useful for what the Washington Post characterized as a "deliberate strategy of disruption"–a race-based campaign that isn’t so much about investigating the 9/11 attacks as it is about locking up Middle Eastern and South Asian immigrants profiled as terrorist threats.

The result is an atmosphere of low-intensity warfare in targeted communities. Caravans of federal trucks are cruising through Jackson Heights, Brooklyn, Coney Island, and Richmond Hill. Neighborhood residents say they hear about FBI raids all the time now.

"Our biggest fear since 9/11 was that people were going to go into hiding more. But what’s happening now is so intense in the level of attacks, the level of targeting, that many people have no choice but to fight back," Maulik says. "Their backs are to the wall."

What Next?

Though community groups are still struggling to respond to the crisis, efforts to build a long-term strategy have started to take shape among immigrant rights advocates, racial justice organizers, civil liberties groups, and anti-war coalitions.

At a March gathering of immigrant rights advocates in Oakland, California, Ai-Jen Poo of New York’s Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence threw out the challenge to "maximize all strategies"–from citizenship drives and community education to lawsuits and protests.

"We need to attack the values that legitimate the targeting of immigrants," Poo said.

But fear and lack of information has contributed to a divide-and-conquer scenario isolating immigrant groups from each other and from U.S.-born people of color.

"There definitely was a period when our communities and organizations needed to regroup and figure out what we can and can’t do," Maulik says. "But now, our communities are waiting for us to take a public stance, to be visible and vocal."

Broader alliances have been critical for targeted communities to access free legal counsel, get support to detainees and their families, and to educate the public.

"What has to inform our organizing is an acknowledgement that as perilous as these times are, they’re not new. We were already in serious crisis prior to September 11," says Nimr of INS Watch. "Our analysis has got to stretch. But those who were trying to make the connections before have got to make those connections now."


The youngest boy, not more than three years old, stares quietly from his grandmother’s lap. The little girl and her brother tug at their mother’s long black skirt, pleading for a dollar to put into the candy machine. The rest of us sit under the glare of phosphorescent lighting, waiting for Officer Burgos to approve our visits.

"They didn’t even have this waiting room until recently," Fernando says, as we watch the clock. "We used to wait outside, in the snow and the rain. And then the sheriff, who was running for office at the time, came out one night when I was there. He says to the families, ‘I’m going to do something to make this better for you.’ And I’m like, yeah like what, take away this jail? He says, ‘I’m going to build a waiting room so you can be indoors!’ And everyone is clapping and cheering–at least they got TV and a soda machine now. That’s where my people are at." He laughs bitterly.

An hour goes by, and Officer Burgos starts to call out the names of detainees we have signed up to visit. Tonight is Tuesday, "A" night.

"Alied, Rava." "Ahmad, Raza." "Akram, Mohmmad."

We trudge up three flights into a long, narrow room with windows on both sides. One side is for the prisoners, set up with phones, and the other side for the guards to look in on us.

The children run straight to Mohmmad Akram’s window. They slap at the glass partition, clamor for his attention as the two phones are passed around. Akram, a stocky man with a close-cropped, graying beard, is smiling, cheerful, seeming to talk to everyone at once. As the kids dart around, Parveen bends her head to the phone and wipes her eyes quickly with her headscarf. Later she will tell me, "My husband said, ‘Allah will make things better, why are you worried? Have courage.’"

After only half an hour, the guard begins yelling that time is up. Nobody is trying to leave that quickly; the children’s voices grow louder in my ears, and I am running to the next phone, trying to get in a word with Rava Alied before we are disconnected. The lights flash off and on, the phones are cut as guards try to get people moving out of the room for the next set of visitors. Rava Alied gives me a sad thumbs-up to say it’s okay.

My eyes sting with tears, I’m suddenly furious and I can’t speak. I feel like a four-year-old kid again, only this time I know how sad it made my father that he couldn’t hold me.

I turn around as I walk away and see Mohmmad Akram put both hands over his heart while his children wave goodbye.