October 8, 2009

From Tourist to Detainee – How a fifty-year old woman spent two months in immigration detention instead of having the vacation she had planned

On Saturday afternoon, Doña Juanita invited my research assistant and I to a sumptuous lunch at her house. We ate baked pasta and baked chicken, with “borracha” – a delicious cake – for dessert. As the owner of a bakery, a farm, and a construction firm, Doña Juanita is a well-off woman. Her son dined with us, and told us that he takes his children to Disney World every year for vacation.

The motive of our visit was two-fold. I was there to interview Doña Juanita’s sister, Doña Mabel, who has been deported from the United States. Elisa, her lawyer, was there to discuss the possibility of Doña Mabel pressing charges against the US government for the way she was treated by immigration agents and the guards at the Elizabeth detention Center.

Doña Mabel traveled to the United States about three months ago, on a tourist visa. She was hoping to go to the US to relax and get away from some of the very stressful events she had experienced in Guatemala, including the death of her son. When she arrived and was being processed through immigration, the Border Patrol agent took her aside and put her in a separate room – secondary inspection. No one told her the motive for her being held. Next thing she knew, she was taken on a bus to Elizabeth Detention Center. She remained there for ten days before anyone came to speak to her about her case.

When she finally had a chance to speak with someone, she was told that she had overstayed a previous visa, and that she had tried to conceal that fact through false exit stamps on her passport. At least, this is what I presume she was told, as this is what appears in her removal documents. She told me she had no idea why she had been detained. Once I explained what her documents indicated, she recounted to me the reasons for her apparent lack of an exit stamp on her previous visit.

It turns out that the last time Doña Mabel was in the US, she became very ill. She explained that she experienced amnesia and was unable to function. Her daughter had to travel to the United States to bring her back to Guatemala. She was not well when she traveled back to Guatemala, and had to be taken out in a quasi-unconscious state. Due to her condition, she was unable to locate her passport, and was issued a consular pass that allowed her to travel to Guatemala. Her passport stayed in the US, and it was sent to her later. For this reason, there was not a valid exit stamp from her previous visit.

Doña Mabel was never given the opportunity to explain her situation. Instead, when she got off of the plane and presented her visa and passport to the Border Patrol agent, she was taken into custody. When she finally had a hearing ten days later, she was told the only way she could stay in the US was to ask for political asylum. Doña Mabel asked for asylum, on the basis of her son, a police officer, having been killed by narco-traffickers. Because she was asking for asylum, she was detained until her hearing. She was finally denied asylum nearly two months later and ordered deported.

Altogether, Doña Mabel spent two months in immigration detention in the US. She is a woman in her fifties who suffers from high blood pressure and is generally not in very good health. At one point, she was made to sleep in an upper bunk, but was unable to lift herself onto the upper bunk. Due to the efforts she made to get onto the upper bunk, her blood pressure rose drastically, and she passed out. She was taken to the hospital, in shackles. She remained in the hospital for five days, and was shackled and handcuffed the whole time. When she ate and went to the bathroom, she remained shackled. The shackles bruised her legs severely.

When Doña Mabel finally was to be deported, she was transferred from New Jersey to Louisiana to board the plane. She did not do well during the trip, and nearly had a stroke. Because of this, she had to be hospitalized again, and missed her plane. When she finally stabilized, she was able to travel and was sent to Guatemala.

Instead of the relaxing vacation in the US she had hoped for, Doña Mabel spent two months in immigration detention, where she was treated like a criminal and denied her dignity as a human being. At present, her family has hired a lawyer to press charges.

Unfortunately, what happened to Doña Mabel appears to be consistent with U.S. laws. Doña Mabel was never officially admitted to the United States. As such, she is not protected by the Constitution. In addition, immigration agents have the right to take into custody anyone they suspect to be in the US illegally. Whether or not she actually had a valid visa, so long as there were grounds to suspect she did not, she could be taken into custody.

The treatment she received, although inhumane and degrading, is the norm at many detention centers. As a woman who expects to be treated better, it seems atrocious. It is atrocious - for everyone who experiences it. However, she is among the few detainees with the resources to do something about what happened to her.

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