How the US Routinely Violates Human Rights at Home

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.”

Add to this the fact that friends and family of the detained person frantically phone government offices where no one answers in English, let alone Kiribati, and immeasurable, unnecessary suffering results.

At least 11 Pennsylvania county prisons have contracts with DHS to hold immigration detainees: Allegheny County Jail, Berks County Family Shelter, Berks County Prison, Berks County Secure Juvenile Facility, Cambria County Prison, Clinton County Correctional Facility, Columbia County Prison, Erie County Prison, Lackawanna County Prison, Pike County Prison, and York County Prison.

Most DHS detainees held in Pennsylvania have been arrested in greater New York City, New Jersey and Philadelphia after residing in the U.S. for years. They often present complicated claims for relief from removal based on U.S. family ties, length of time here and fear of return to their home countries. These people, who present strong arguments to remain, find themselves in detention the longest. On January 25, 2009, 551 of 1,135 immigrants detained in PA had been detained longer than the 45 days. One of them had been detained for 5 years.

The rate at which people detained by DHS move through the commonwealth is astounding. Most must travel through York County Prison which houses an immigration court. Over the course of a year 10,000 people are shuttled through York and off to everywhere in the world. But, this massive forced migration is invisible, unless you’re looking. Pennsylvania’s detained people are transported in unmarked buses (see photo on page 1). They are held in regular county jails that often bear no insignia of a federal government presence.

The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads, in part, “No person shall be . . . deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law.” The promise of freedom made by our Constitution applies to every person in the United States, not just to citizens.

The ACLU-PA works every day to keep this promise. Since 2008, the ACLU-PA, along with the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, has won the release of eight people detained by DHS longer than one year in Pennsylvania’s prisons. In one of these cases, filed as a class action with the help of Pepper Hamilton LLP, the Middle District of Pennsylvania acknowledged, “the growing consensus within this district and, indeed it appears throughout the federal courts, that prolonged detention of aliens . . . raises serious constitutional concerns.” The case, Alli v Decker, is on its way to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, where we hope for a decision that will set free Pennsylvania’s DHS detainees who have been held for more than a year absent any judicial review of the decision to detain.

According to the government’s interpretation of the law, people jailed for years by DHS are not even entitled to a hearing before a judge who has the power to set them free. DHS’s “administrative detention” powers, it argues, are absolute. We believe that the Fifth Amendment applies to all people, and as such, we trudge onward through the courts.

Valerie Burch is a staff attorney for the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

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