by Valerie Burch
Mohammed Uddin lived in New York City for 15 out of his 41 years. Back in Bangladesh, he wouldn't be able to get the life-sustaining heart medication he takes daily for a rare form of severe hypertension called Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome. On the tarmac at Harrisburg International Airport on May 13, 2008, about to begin the arduous journey back to Bangladesh, his blood pressure soared and he lost consciousness.
Tioti Tong was crewing the Cap San Augustin when it docked at Philadelphia in August 2008. Other crew had stowed narcotics aboard, and the Department of Homeland Security heard about it. When agents raided the ship, Tioti was arrested with the other Kiribatian crew. Long after the Cap San Augustin departed and Tioti was cleared of all charges, he sat in Lackawanna County Prison for another year, speaking only Kiribatian, with no way home, forgotten by the government that had arrested him.
Abed Asie is a citizen of no country. He snuck into this one five years ago. Found out, he threw up his hands and acquiesced to deportation at the first opportunity. For more than a year he languished in Pennsylvania prisons, dressed in prison orange and never setting foot outdoors, writing letter after letter searching for a safe way home to a land with no airport, no agreed-upon name, and no official government. The son of a divided family in a divided land, (his father is Jewish, his mother Muslim) he longs to return home to Nablus. His return has proved impossible, and he continues to wait for freedom in a Pennsylvania prison.
The logistics of our immigration system are painful, particularly for these ACLU-PA clients, but to many our immigration system is just that-logistics. Each year, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) detains more than 300,000 people in "administrative custody" under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). Such custody is not accompanied by the procedural protections afforded convicted criminals. Immigrants arrested by DHS have no right to a lawyer. Often, no judge reviews their custody. They aren't given the same medical treatment as their cellmates-native criminals. They sometimes wait for years while the courts decide whether they may remain in the United States. They are assigned a number-an "Alien Registration Number" which they had best memorize, because it's likely that no one in the jails they'll visit will be able to pronounce their names.
And, they will likely visit a lot of jails.
DHS moves detainees any prison in the nation where it has "bedspace." One woman, plucked from an Amtrak train during what was to be a brief station stop in Erie, struggled to recount the number and names of the Pennsylvania prisons through which she was transferred over the course of a 30-day period before she landed in front of an immigration judge at York County Prison. At each jail, she said, it was the same.
"No one there could tell us why were being held, for how long or where we were going next. We were 'immigration,' and our jailors didn't know anything about that."