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by Lynda Crawford

Jean-Pierre Ngouama fled the Republic of Congo in March of 1997 amidst a devastating civil war. Because he had been an outspoken critic of the mass arrests (including his own) and rampant killings, his life was in danger. A friend in the military provided him with a false passport, documents, and an airplane ticket to New York. At 36, Jean-Pierre left his wife, two children, and his past behind. He arrived at JFK and asked for asylum. After two days of sleeping on a table, he was brought to the Elizabeth detention center where he spent the next two and a half years, until he was granted asylum and released last June.

"I don't have anything bad to say about the detention center," said Mr. Ngouama. "They don't beat people. They give you food. But the hard part is you can't see outside. And you can't touch someone who comes to visit you."

Mr. Ngouama passed the Credible Fear Interview, determining that his claim for asylum was not frivolous, but he was denied asylum when his case finally came before an immigration judge after a year in detention. At that point, he had the choice to go back home or to appeal; he decided on the appeal, even though he knew it would mean more months in detention. In fact, it meant another year and a half.

Asked why he stayed and went through this long process, why he didn't just return home, Mr. Ngouama said, "I'd be killed at the airport. No one would ever know what happened to me. There's no justice there."

After hearing his appeal, which included newspaper stories, confirmation from human rights groups about what was going on in his country, a letter from his wife, and testimony from his brother-in-law who was in the US and affirmed that his life was in danger, the judge granted Jean-Pierre Ngouama asylum.

Asylum Seekers

Mr. Ngouama is one example of the refugees from over 20 countries in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe seeking asylum in the US. They arrived in this country without proper papers and, as a result of the 1996 Immigration Law, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, anyone entering the US seeking asylum without valid documentation, who is not immediately deported at the airport by an INS agent, is put in detention while awaiting a decision about his case. Although parole is now an option if the person has family or friends here and they are not considered a flight risk, it is seldom granted.

In New York, asylum seekers are detained in former warehouses in Jamaica, Queens or Elizabeth, New Jersey. They have no privacy and no guarantee of legal representation. They wear prison uniforms, are searched routinely, and have no knowledge of how long they will be detained. They eat, sleep and shower in a windowless room with thirty or forty other people 22 hours a day. There are no doors on the showers or toilets. One hour a day, they are permitted outdoor recreation in a room with cinder block walls and a ten foot opening in the ceiling, providing a view of the sky through a chain-link fence.

Refugees coming to the United States generally take one of three paths. The first is to apply for refugee status through the US Embassy for Resettlement, await approval (which can sometimes take years), acquire the proper papers and an airline ticket, be welcomed into the country and receive resettlement assistance.

The second way is for someone already here, on a tourist, student or working visa, for example, to decide they want to stay and apply for asylum. Again this can take a couple of years, but during this process, they remain free.

The third way refugees enter the country, and the one taken by the asylum-seekers in detention, is to arrive in the U.S. without having applied for refugee status, and without valid papers. It is a path often taken when fleeing persecution, war or torture; often the individual doesn't have access to the political asylum process, and the only way out of the country is with false papers.

There are 200 asylum-seekers in Queens and 300 at Elizabeth. Both of these facilities are run by private corporations - Wackenhut in Queens and Corrections Corporation of America in Elizabeth. Because of a scarcity of space at these and other detention centers throughout the country, the INS also sends sixty percent of immigrants seeking asylum to US prisons and jails.

Passing the Time

According to people who have been in detention, one of the biggest emotional strains is the day to day boredom, frequently made worse by lack of contact with anyone who speaks the same language.

Breaking up this expanse of time and isolation was a model program run by Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) bringing English classes and Bible study to all interested at the Elizabeth Detention Center. "The nicest day here is Thursday," a detainee wrote," because we have English class." Another expressed: "When we have English classes, we feel happy, like we are not in detention. We feel like we are at school."

For two and a half years, JRS brought this program into Elizabeth and they were discussing the possibility of a similar program at Wackenhut with INS. About 170 detainees attended the English classes, and half that many attended the Bible study.

Then last November, the INS abruptly suspended the entire program because of two incidents. First, in English class, a volunteer directed detainees to write evaluations of the class and suggested they could also include what they'd like to see different about detention. In addition, she mentioned an upcoming immigrant advocacy meeting.

The subject of the Bible study on the following day was Matthew 25, a passage that discussed welcoming strangers and visiting those in prison. This selection was in keeping with the Common Lectionary and was used in many church services that week throughout the world. It was not specifically chosen for immigrants in detention. The next day, the JRS programs were closed down.

INS claimed JRS broke their agreement not to include detention issues in lesson plans. According to Will Coley, New Jersey Project Director of JRS, there was no such written or verbal agreement. "The INS assumed that JRS would do nothing to rile up detainees. In practice, JRS never made detention the subject of any classes or Bible studies. However, detainees continually arrived with questions and concerns with their present situation in detention.

"The INS overreacted," continued Mr. Coley. "The only thing (the detainees) have left is faith and intellect. Our program was just trying to support them in those areas."

An immigration lawyer with the Catholic Legal Immigration Network (CLINIC), who goes into Elizabeth to see clients, has noticed a big difference since the JRS program has been suspended. "People can really be isolated," said Mary McClenahan. "Imagine being the only person to speak Fulani, or whatever language. That kind of program helped them."

Jesuit Refugee Service provided INS with a proposal to return to the facility but, to date, it has not been accepted. A proposal for Bible study by another group has been accepted, reportedly with the provision that they do not include the Jesuits in their group.

Left in the Lurch

Some asylum-seekers cannot endure detention and eventually give up and return to their countries of origin, taking their chances there. There have been a few suicide attempts at Elizabeth and at least one death (a fall) is suspected to have been a suicide. Time in detention varies from a few months to several years, depending on the number of appeals, but there are also immigrant detainees called 'lifers', who have been ordered to return to their homelands but these countries, such as Cuba, China or Cambodia, will not accept them back.

According to a piece in The Ellis Islander, a newsletter put by the American Bar Association's Immigration Pro Bono Development and Bar Activation Project, "there are 4,000 lifers locked up indefinitely even though some have never committed a crime and none of them is serving a criminal sentence. Yet all remain behind bars, month after month, year after year, with no reasonable expectation that they will ever be released. As if to hide this travesty of justice, the INS often places 'lifers' in small, local jails where they are mixed with convicted criminals and forgotten.

"The INS continues to hold 'lifers' despite a mandate requiring a review of anyone with a final order of deportation who has not been removed within 90 days. INS' own figures show that 34.6 percent of lifers whose cases have been reviewed have warranted supervised release."

Amnesty International released a report last September documenting the extremely long periods asylum seekers spent detained: "US authorities violate the fundamental human rights of asylum-seekers." As outlined in the Amnesty report, everyone has the right to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution, under Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The United States is also a member of the Executive Committee of the UN's High Commissioner for Refugees, which has resolved that detention of asylum-seekers should be an exception, only permitted until a preliminary interview is carried out; the Amnesty report suggests such a preliminary interview might require one or two days - a far cry from the months and years people are spending in detention.

"The use of detention by the USA is a disproportionate and harsh measure in the pursuit of immigration control objectives," the Amnesty report concluded. "Furthermore, the conditions of detention in which asylum-seekers are held are inhuman and do not respect the inherent dignity of the person."

Recommendations in the report included that detention should normally be avoided, and that the US government should revise its detention law and policy.

Legislating Alternatives

There has been progress. Legislation is surfacing to reverse some of the harsh components of 1996 Law. The Kennedy-Robb Bill would require the Attorney General to develop a detention reform plan within two years, which includes standards for conditions of detention, as well as alternatives to detention for asylum-seekers.

The Refugee Protection Act of 2000 sponsored by Senators Leahy (D-VT), Brownback (R-KS) and others, would restore the right to see an asylum officer or immigration judge before deportation proceedings, a protection removed by Congress in '96. It also includes a provision mentioning the discretion to parole rather than detain.

In the meantime, volunteer groups are helping detainees overcome loneliness and monotony. Volunteer visitors come into Elizabeth and Wackenhut every week, through JRS and other groups, to visit with detainees. Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service has launched a Pen Pal Project, linking people up with asylum-seekers in detention to correspond by mail.

NYC's Victim Services has a program called SOLACE in Jackson Heights, and Bellevue-NYU sponsors a Program for Survivors of Torture in Manhattan to help asylees after their release from detention with residual social, medical, emotional and trauma-related difficulties.

And JRS has a Post-Release Program for detainees after they are freed, supporting them with housing, food, clothing, and help getting on public assistance while they wait for permission to work. The Social Service Coordinator from JRS, Tasha Gill, was there at the gate to pick up Jean-Pierre Ngouama last June when he walked outside for the first time in two and a half years. She placed him a room at the YMCA in Newark and helped him out with food and carfare, until he was permitted to work, a few months later.

"People come out of there without anything," said Mr. Ngouama. "If you don't have anyone to help you, it can be very difficult. If you don't have a family or a sponsor, you could end up homeless, and find yourself in a second detention."

Mr. Ngouama's wife and children were automatically granted asylum because he was. They are going through the legal channels at this time and should arrive within a year.

Meanwhile, every weekend, Mr. Ngouama goes back and visits the people who are still waiting.


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