Content note: mention of detention, death, medical neglect and violence
A man came to the US on a valid visa and applied for asylum. While waiting years for his case to be decided, he was part of the Seattle area workforce and married a U.S. citizen. His American-born wife applied for U.S. permanent residency for her spouse, but the petition was denied. Later, his asylum request was also denied.
By then, the couple already had two children. Instead of self-deporting after his asylum request was denied, the man remained in the country and continued to support his family.
After being diagnosed with congestive heart failure and a neck tumor, the father of the family, Saja Tunkara, was scheduled for a tumor-removal operation in January 2018. But ICE took him into custody shortly before his scheduled operation. They did not allow him to keep his surgery appointment.
Conditions for detainees at the NWDC
Mr Tunkara was held at the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC). This privately-run facility operated for ICE had drawn repeated attention for its poor conditions since 2014. In the weeks that followed Mr Tunkara’s detention, a local group NWDC Resistance (now known as La Resistencia) received calls from inside the detention center saying, “There’s a guy with tumors on his neck that we can see, he shouldn’t be here, he should in a hospital.”
Mr Tunkara was deported in October 2018, after spending more than 9 months in detention. During that period, he acquired vision and breathing problems, in addition to more tumors. ICE did not allow him his wife and children to say goodbye to him.
A few weeks later, another NWDC detainee died. Mergensana Amar had sought asylum at the US border in Dec. 2017. The Russian was detained in NWDC, where he and other detainees started a hunger strike in August 2018. In September, a court order to force feed Amar was filed. Sometime after that, Amar was transferred from the medical unit to to a solitary-confinement cell used for discipline. On Nov. 3, Amar wrote a note claiming that he had been locked naked in a cold cell for 2 days before being returned to his regular cell. On Nov. 15 2018, Amar attempted suicide and was taken to the ICU at a local hospital, where he was removed from life support 6 days later.
in the years that followed, concerns continued to be raised about the NWDC. In April 2020, a group of women detained at the NWDC alleged that they were held in unhygienic conditions and not even given soap to wash their hands during the coronovirus epidemic.
A Dec. 2020 report by The University of Washington Center for Human Rights corroborated their concerns: Conditions at the NWDC: COVID-19 and Health Standards – Center for Human Rights (washington.edu)
How rare was Mergensana Amar’s experience of being held in a room with unhealthily low temperature? Stories of excessively cold rooms were not limited to the NWDC. In 2014, Mayeli Hernandez Juarez, an unaccompanied minor from Honduras, spoke about her experience in an “icebox” at a holding facility: “It was really cold there… we were there for a long time… We didn’t sleep… we didn’t shower, we didn’t brush our teeth… They don’t give us a bed to sleep in there. It’s really cold. You shiver from the cold…”
On May 9, 2018, Roxsana Hernandez, a transgender asylum seeker, applied for asylum at the California border. She was detained for expedited removal and locked up in a holding facility before being transferred to a detention facility in New Mexico on May 15. According to a BBC report, a fellow detainee named Stacy claimed that for the 5 days leading up to May 15, the visibly sick Hernandez was held in a very cold holding cell, the notorious ice box. Stacy also claimed that the ICE officials at the holding facility “yelled” at Hernandez because she was sick. She was not given medical attention until she was transferred to the detention facility.
On May 17, Hernandez was sent to hospital with symptoms of pneumonia. She died on May 25. The preliminary cause of death was determined to be “cardiac arrest”. An independent autopsy concluded the likely cause of death was severe dehydration, but also found evidence that she had been beaten.
Law, justice and safety
Revisiting the story of Saja Tunkara, who did not self-deport after his asylum request was denied, we might be tempted to say, “Oh well, if you break immigration law, you’ll have to suffer the consequences”:
But let’s not forget that the goal of law and order is justice and safety. Where is the justice if the consequence is horrendously out of proportion with the “offense”? Losing your eyesight and losing the use of your arm for overstaying a visa is NOT a just consequence. Btw, overstaying a visa is considered a civil infraction and NOT a federal crime, at least at the present time.
And let’s remember that immigration detention is civil detention, NOT criminal detention. It is NOT supposed to be punitive. And even in the case of criminal detention, is acquiring a permanent disability part of the sentence?
Like Mr Tunkara, the Andereas family came to the U.S. on a tourist visa and then filed for asylum. Christians from Indonesia who claimed asylum based on fear of faith-based persecution, Keinada Andereas and her parents also over-stayed in the U.S. after their asylum request was rejected in 2007. In 2011, a sponsorship application filed for the family by a U.S. citizen relative was approved. But that did not erase the removal order against the Andereas family for overstaying. It only added them to a long line of applicants waiting for visa approvals.
By 2018, Keinada Andereas was a high school honors student who had won a scholarship. A few days short of starting her first year at CU Denver, Keinada Andereas and her father were taken into custody by ICE agents. They spent 71 days in the Aurora immigration detention center, which. like NWDC in Washington state, is a private facility run by The GEO Group for ICE. At times, Keinada considered deportation over continued detention.
With the help of Denver University’s immigration law clinic, Keinada and her father were eventually released on deferred deportation. Deferred deportation, or “deferred action”, is a status granted to someone when they are deportable but ICE decides to delay the deportation. Keinada Andereas was able to continue her education at CU Denver as an undocumented student and has gone on to win multiple scholarships. She is on the pre-med track and is in the University Honors and Leadership Program.
Regardless of how strongly one feels about the civil offense of overstaying, it should be easy to agree that detention conditions should be humane. Some people can more easily perceive injustice in similar circumstances when a member of their racial group – or another group that they can identify with – is receiving disproportionate punishment from a society ruled by a group that they consider “other”. Take for example the case of a white American boy who was detained for allegedly stealing a poster in North Korea and died after a detention of 15 months. Even if he did commit the theft, most people have no difficulty seeing that dying in a coma is not a just, proportionate consequence for filching a piece of paper.
If the goal of law and order is to create a safe, stable society, is there a gain in safety and stability we suddenly lock up the main breadwinner of a family when they are not a threat to public safety? ShaCorrie Wimbley Tunkara, the wife of Saja Tunkara, said: “Since my husband has been detained I have entered a financial vortex…” Despite working full time, she struggled to pay for basic necessities for her family.
After Keinada Andereas and her father were locked up, her mother and younger brother lost their income source and had to move in with church acquaintances.
A Mississippi family with U.S. citizen children had their husband and father taken away “when [the] family was at its most vulnerable – just home from the hospital with a baby only five days old.” The father Jorge had told ICE about the baby. Still, the agents left the mother Rita alone with her three children and without so much as a call to local domestic support agencies, which is routine for local police.
Think that this can’t happen to you?
Maybe we have bought into the narrative of “good immigrant” vs “bad immigrant”. We want to think that as long as we/our friends/our neighbors belong in the “good” category, whether it is because of social class, educational level, valid visa, green card, or citizenship status, we’ll never see the inside of an immigration detention facility.
Think again. The line between a “documented” alien and an “undocumented” alien is pretty thin. Someone who enters the country on a valid visa is “documented.” When their visa expires, they become “undocumented”.
A student visa that is out of status for a few days is enough to land one in immigration detention, even if the documentation is re-instated. in 2018, Rachel Kim, a South Korean student in the Seattle area, was locked up in Northwest Detention Center after renewing her documentation late. Kim asked to be deported immediately rather than continue detention. Her request was refused on the grounds that only a judge could decide that, even though the U.S. itself was trying to deport her. But ICE couldn’t tell her when she would see a judge. With an overcrowded detention center and a huge backlog at immigration court, Kim was looking at an indefinite stay in immigration detention. Kim was released after 2 weeks only because her fiance, a Chinese student at the same college, reached out to Seattle Times about her case. Seattle Times then contacted ICE.
OK, one can argue that student visa holders are not considered immigrants. This won’t happen to documented immigrants like permanent residents, aka green card holders, right?
A green card holder is “documented” until their permanent residency is revoked for deportable offenses.
California resident Jose Luis Garcia had been a lawful permanent resident of the U.S. since 1988. In 2001, he was convicted of domestic violence, a deportable crime. Garcia continued living in the United States and became a grandfather. In 2018, Garcia was arrested by ICE agents at the home where he lived with his spouse, children and 6-year-old grandchild. The 62-year-old was taken into immigration detention and put into removal proceedings for his 18-year-old conviction.
Deportable crimes are not necessarily violent crimes. A British priest in Illinois committed the crime of voting as a legal permanent resident, not knowing that he was breaking the law when he voted on a ballot measure to boost fire-protection resources for the local fire department in 2006. Rev. David Boase did not vote again after a friend told he it was a federal offense for a non-citizen to vote. In 2018, the retired priest became a target for deportation because of his old offense. However, he was not taken into detention pending his removal.
Consider the case of Alejandra Pablos, who came to the U.S. as a child and obtained lawful permanent residency. As a young adult, she had a series of convictions for DUI and possession of drug paraphernalia from 2005-2010. These resulted in Pablos being taken into immigration detention in 2013. Pablos spent 2 years in detention before being released on deferred deportation. Deferred deportation, or “deferred action”, is a status that you get when you are deemed deportable but ICE decides not to deport you immediately. You may still have to check in with ICE on a regular basis. There is a possibility that you may be detained for deportation during one of your check-in appointments, which happened to Alejandra Pablos and Ravi Ragbir, another green card holder fighting a deportation order for a wire fraud conviction.
This is not the place to argue about whether immigrants like Pablos and Ragbir should have their lawful permanent residency status revoked as a consequence for offenses that they committed, or whether they deserve a second chance. There are enough arguments for both sides out there on the internet for those who are interested.
However, we do suggest considering the scenario of a white European immigrant, who like Pablos, migrated to the US as a child, was granted lawful permanent residency, and then committed a series of DUI and drug possession offenses in his youth. Yet this individual talks without irony about the difference between desirable immigrants and undesirable immigrants, never expressing any awareness that by the standards of immigration law, he would belong in the latter group due to his drug-use-and-DUI history. (Drug use is a deportable offense)
His definition of “desirable immigrants” are people who have been to college. Presumably this white immigrant has been to college, but so has Pablos.
Technically, it isn’t that hard to lose one’s visa or green card status. Mere forgetfulness could do the trick: Failure to report an address change to the Department of Homeland Security could be grounds for removal.
But how many immigrants do you know actually got deported for not reporting an address change promptly? There has always been a degree of discretion in prioritizing which rule breakers to remove from the country. Keinada Andereas, the honor student with no criminal record, was not detained until 2018. There had been an order of removal against her since 2008, after the family’s asylum application was denied. ICE did not prioritize resources to track Keinada Andereas down and take her into custody until fairly recently.
So, does immigration enforcement impact everyone who has committed the same offenses (or committed no offenses for that matter) in the same way?
Food for thought:
U.S. citizens in immigration detention
Hypothetically speaking, even if you are a U.S. citizen who does not care if immigrants and asylum seekers deserve human rights, it might still benefit you to make sure that the conditions in immigration detention are tolerable for you, just in case you end up in there . Yes, U.S. citizens do get taken by ICE. And when it does happen, the burden is on you to prove your citizenship: