Written by Carol Fouke-Mpoyo
Alberto, a 42-year-old Cuban immigrant, has been in an INS detention facility for more than six months awaiting word on his asylum claim. Steven Rubin photo.
"Something has gone terribly wrong in the way our country treats people who come to our shores fleeing persecution and torture in their homelands."
So concluded the Rev. John L. McCullough, Executive Director of Church World Service, following a rare tour April 30 of an immigration detention center near New York's John F. Kennedy Airport.
What's wrong? Under U.S. "immigration reforms" adopted in 1996, innocent refugee men, women, even children seeking safe haven (asylum) in the United States must convince a low-level immigration officer at the airport or other entry point that they have a "credible fear of persecution" if returned home.
Some, unsuccessful, are deported immediately under "expedited removal" provisions. The rest are arrested, shackled and taken to detention centers, jails and prisons where they often wait months, even years until a decision is reached on their asylum claim.
McCullough and 17 other religious leaders spent two hours inside the Wackenhut Detention Center in Jamaica, N.Y. The windowless, 200-bed, brick-and-concrete-block building is run by the Wackenhut Corrections Corporation under contract with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). The visit was organized by the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.
The visitors walked through narrow, winding corridors and peered through glass at the detainees, men and women dressed in orange jumpsuits and locked inside 12- to 40-bed "dormitories" and stark, solitary "segregation" cells.
In each dormitory, a uniformed guard keeps watch as detainees sleep, read, watch television, use the open-stall toilets, shower, take their meals and play board games to pass the time. Detainees struggle to pull together documentation for their asylum cases. To phone out, they must purchase expensive phone cards.
Detainees are confined to their dormitories day and night except for 60 to 90 minutes of "indoor" or "outdoor" recreation a day. "Indoor rec" is a small gymnasium, "outdoor rec" a small courtyard with towering walls and a metal grid roof.
The religious leaders were allowed to interview one detainee, a 15-year-old from the Democratic Republic of Congo, in her fourth month of detention. The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society is providing her with free legal representation and asked the detention center's administrator to allow the visiting group to meet with her.
Sucking on a finger, the slight, soft-spoken girl said she was on her way to Canada to rejoin her mother, an asylum seeker there, when she was arrested in transit at JFK Airport and taken to the detention center.
The INS insists that she is at least 18 years old, based on a dental X-ray taken upon her arrival in the United States. "But anyone can see that she is a child," McCullough of Church World Service said. Wackenhut Detention Center is supposed to house only adults.
"I just want to get out of here and be with my mother," the girl said through an interpreter. Instead, she was forced to request asylum in the United States to avoid being deported back to Congo.
"I was shocked at what I saw," said the Rev. Bob Edgar, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches. Edgar said he had served a one-year chaplaincy at the federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pa., and observed, "Imprisoned criminals have more freedom, access and opportunity."
Archdeacon Michael S. Kendall of the Episcopal Diocese of New York declared that what he had seen was "un-American." Unfazed by the center administrator's assertions that the facility is appropriate for non-criminal asylum seekers, he said, "If it looks like a jail and acts like a jail, it's a jail. In the name of God, let's open our arms and treat these people as human beings."
Carol Fouke-Mpoyo, a member of The Riverside Church/UCC in New York City, works as media liaison for the National Council of Churches.