Wild (Sem)antics in the FLA

Sen. Frederica Wilson (D-Miami) of the Fla. state legislature has proposed a bill banning use of the term "illegal alien" from official state business, according to news-press.com.

Perhaps my familiarity with the legal language around immigration has numbed me to the strangeness of the term. But "alien" certainly rankles me less than "illegal".

But Wilson says: "An alien to me is someone from out of space....'Illegal,' I can live with, but I like 'undocumented' better."

But isn't "illegal" used much more in common parlance and public debate? And doesn't it carry flagrant connotations (and denotations) of criminality? It seems a much more problematic word -- particularly when used as a noun. (The headline of the news-press.com article is an ironic case-in-point.) Also, I'm not sure we should take advice on diction from someone who says "out of space" rather than "outer space".

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"It's very horrible here. We need help."

Among the immigrants held in U.S. family detention facilities is an Iranian couple and their 9-year-old, Canadian son who were on a direct flight from Guyana to Canada when their plane made an emergency landing in Puerto Rico because a passenger on the plane died from a heart attack. In Puerto Rico U.S. immigration officials arrested them for not having U.S. visas -- despite the fact they never intended to pass through U.S. territory. After several days in a Puerto Rican jail, the "Majid" family has been held at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Texas for almost three weeks. Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! radio interviewed the "Majid" family today. (They asked their identities remain concealed.)

Apparently, Majid and his wife lived in Canada for ten years, during which time they had their son. When they lost their case for political asylum, they were deported to Iran, where they were immediately taken into government custody. Majid told Goodman:

"I was in Iran a small cell for six months, and lots of torture and hitting. Now I have physical problem and knee problem and lots of things. And they took my wife to other prison, where we have no news from each other."

He said the government held his wife on and off for more than a year. Eventually the family escaped and was on their way back to Canada -- but have ended up at Hutto in rather abject conditions.

Goodman spoke to 9-year-old "Kevin" who said:

"I’m sleeping beside the washroom, and I can't -- and I’m upstairs. I can't go to the washroom all the time. And there's a lot of smell coming out from the washroom. And the food is garbage. And the school is very bad. I can't learn anything good. And I have asthma, and I got sick in here. I can't stay here anymore."

By "washroom" he meant "toilet". Apparently, he's sleeping next to a toilet in an old prison cell. Kevin said his mother has also fallen ill during the almost three weeks that the family has spent in Hutto so far. They have law students from an immigration clinic working on their case but have neither been charged nor had a hearing.

"Majid" explained where things stand and why he asked his true identity remain hidden:

"We are in very bad situation, because I don't trust here immigration, because the first time they said lots of things to us, but they broke their promise. [He says they told him the family would be held in a hotel and then let free.] ....But now they said we're going to deported. OK, maybe we deported. And we are like this. We are in 100% in danger. If our whole full name goes, it's 200% in danger, because especially United States -- if you go from other country, you have less risk with government. If you go from United States, because they said “US is our enemy,” they said, Iranian authorities says, OK? But that's why we are in more and more trouble if we go back, because they will say, “Why you go to US and this happen?”

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More Abuse Reports in Detention

"Help us and ask us questions," scrawled in child's handwriting on a torn slip of paper recently found its way into the hands of a visitor at a detention center for immigrant families in Texas. The Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services visited T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Texas and the Berks Family Shelter Care Facility in Pennsylvania where they interviewed detainees and ICE officials and have written a report on their findings.

Now, they are pushing to shut down these centers on the grounds that they treat families inhumanely and hope to stop the government's creation of further similar facilities, according to the AP.

"'What hits you the hardest in there is that it's a prison. In Hutto, it's a prison,' said Michelle Brane, detention and asylum project director for Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children." [AP]

Until recently, children of people in immigration proceedings were simply taken from their parents. So, keeping them together should be an improvement. However, because these are the first facilities of their kind, "there are no standards for family detention, but both facilities violated various aspects of existing standards for the treatment of unaccompanied children and adults in immigration proceedings." [From actual report.]

Other findings by the groups:

-At Hutto, cell door systems prevent parents from attending to children after "lights out." At the Berks shelter, children over 5 sleep separately from their parents.

-Until recently, Hutto children were given one hour of schooling a day, five days a week. That recently has been increased to four.

-Teachers at the Hutto center are not required to be licensed in Texas and the state's family welfare agency exempted Hutto from child care licensing requirements.

-Separation and threats of separation were used as disciplinary tools on adults and children. [AP]

"• Hutto is a former criminal facility that still looks and feels like a prison, complete with razor wire and prison cells.

• Some families with young children have been detained in these facilities for up to two years.

• People in detention displayed widespread and obvious psychological trauma. Every woman we spoke with in a private setting cried.

• At Hutto pregnant women received inadequate prenatal care.

• Families in Hutto received no more than twenty minutes to go through the cafeteria line and feed their children and themselves. Children were frequently sick from the food and losing weight.

• Families in Hutto received extremely limited indoor and outdoor recreation time and children did not have any soft toys." [From actual report.]

Berks seems to be run better, allowing more time for recreation and more activities for children. But both facilities treat non-convicts, including women and children, like criminal prisoners. Because they have no guidelines, they discipline both children and adults inconsistently and without regard for age differences among children. The groups also found that both facilities violated standards about denying access to counsel, food, hygiene products, clothing, etc., and resorting to corporal punishment.

The AP quotes White House Press Sec. Tony Snow justifying the facilities, "You have to do the best with what you've got." If this is the best the ICE can do, then it needs some discipline itself.

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Virginia to Cut Funds for Helping People

Virginia House Bill 2937, passed by the Delegates in Jan., proposes that organizations receiving state or local funding cannot “use those funds to provide benefits or assistance to ineligible persons such as undocumented immigrants”. Nancy Lyall and Teresita Jacinto of the Woodbridge Workers Committee, have published an op-ed in The Washington Post, condemning the bill for its inhumanity, on the basis that children, the sick, and other needy will suffer unduly when homeless shelters, English schools, and church groups cease functioning as they do now.

Charity, particularly religious, obviously has a close history with immigration -- from Emma Lazarus's poem on the Statue of Liberty to the Sanctuary Movement -- which is not surprising, considering its central role in Judeo-Christian scripture. In Mark 25:34-40, the King welcomes into heaven those who helped strangers during their times on earth and damns those who did not. The instruction of the verses is obvious, that we must help “the least of these my brethren”, not only those who mean something to us or have done something for us. This sentiment is an echo from the Torah, which clearly instructs the faithful -- on many occasions -- to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and welcome the stranger into our homes because we once were (and could be again) strangers in another land. (Deut. 10:19, “Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.”) The Bible puts no qualifications on whom to help, and we mortals do not get to judge our fellows' worthiness.

Some ire puffed up recently when someone started a “deport Santa” movement to mock the anti-immigrant law in Hazleton, Pa. What kind of response would a “Jesus was an illegal immigrant” campaign get? The (earthly) reason the son of man entered the world in a manger full of animals instead of a house is that his parents were immigrants -- Joseph and Mary lived in Nazareth but were returning to Bethlehem, Joseph’s hometown, to be counted in the Roman census. They were poor, and there was no room at the inn, so the pregnant woman and her husband had to sleep in the manger. These were migrants on the road in need of help -- and look what came from them. (I’m certainly not the first to make this point.)

In a country like ours where a majority of the population claims to follow the mandates of the Bible, one would think such arguments would give rise to according results, that calling on the public’s sense of humanity and charity would lead to the striking down of measures like Virginia House 2937. But, while many people of faith do take up the cause of charity, the assault on unjust immigration legislation hasn’t worked this way. Somehow, advocates just sound like more bleeding-heart, terrorist-loving liberals. History tells us the tactic Lyall and Jacinto use in their piece, harping on the individuals who will suffer from this bill, will prove ineffective.

However, the writers do have several important points buried in their piece and imply another. They mention that denying medical aid to a diabetic now could result in a larger amount of tax money spent later, if the man becomes gravely ill from lack of care. They mention that non-immigrants and legal migrants will suffer from cutting funding to such groups. They also make note of the important point that, "Current federal immigration policy provides no legal avenue for their presence”. (A blow to those who say, “We’d welcome them if they just came legally.")

But the implied point of the piece -- the most important -- is that these measures will not stop people from coming here, with or without documentation. No one crosses the desert on foot because a particular homeless shelter in Virginia has warm coats. In fact, simply by staying here -- and, for those who came that way, by crossing the border -- our undocumented population has already shown a willingness to endure hardships that should assure us that just being meaner to them won’t solve our “problem” of having them here. It just proves us cruel.

Now this is not my call to religion, or even a rank chastisement of the hypocrites of faith (well, maybe a bit). Rather, consider this a plea that, even should many of us not follow these tenets of religion, we should not impede charitable organizations, hospitals, and schools by cutting off their funds on such grounds as those proposed in Virginia's House Bill 2937.

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Internment Camps Reappear in the USA

Men, women, and children held indefinitely in windowless tents. Divided into "pods". Denied hearings and access to counsel. Sometimes having to eat with their hands. Sent outside for recreation on a cold, windy day without even long sleeves. No, not Children of Men, which, it seems, has nothing to do with the future. We're doing this now. Read on. (I've highlighted some of the more striking passages.)

Border Policy's Success Strains Resources
Tent City in Texas Among Immigrant Holding Sites Drawing Criticism

By Spencer S. Hsu and Sylvia Moreno
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, February 2, 2007; A01

RAYMONDVILLE, Tex. -- Ringed by barbed wire, a futuristic tent city rises from the Rio Grande Valley in the remote southern tip of Texas, the largest camp in a federal detention system rapidly gearing up to keep pace with Washington's increasing demand for stronger enforcement of immigration laws.

About 2,000 illegal immigrants, part of a record 26,500 held across the United States by federal authorities, will call the 10 giant tents home for weeks, months and perhaps years before they are removed from the United States and sent back to their home countries.

The $65 million tent city, built hastily last summer between a federal prison and a county jail, marks both the success and the limits of the government's new policy of holding captured non-Mexicans until they are sent home. Previously, most such detainees were released into the United States before hearings, and a majority simply disappeared.

The new policy has led to a dramatic decline in border crossings by non-Mexicans, according to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

But civil liberties and immigration law groups allege that out of sight, the system is bursting at the seams. In the Texas facility, they say, illegal immigrants are confined 23 hours a day in windowless tents made of a Kevlar-like material, often with insufficient food, clothing, medical care and access to telephones. Many are transferred from the East Coast, 1,500 miles from relatives and lawyers, virtually cutting off access to counsel.

"I call it 'Ritmo' -- like Gitmo, but it's in Raymondville," said Jodi Goodwin, an immigration lawyer from nearby Harlingen.

An inspector general's report last month on a sampling of five U.S. immigration detention facilities found inhumane and unsafe conditions, including inadequate health care, the presence of vermin, limited access to clean underwear and undercooked poultry. Although ICE standards require that immigrants have access to phones and pro bono law offices, investigators found phones missing, not working or connected to non-working numbers.

With roughly 1.6 million illegal immigrants in some stage of immigration proceedings, ICE holds more inmates a night than Clarion hotels have guests, operates nearly as many vehicles as Greyhound has buses and flies more people each day than do many small U.S. airlines.

Gary Mead, assistant director of ICE detention and removal operations, said the agency is proud of its record, calling Raymondville "a modern, clean facility" that meets federal standards -- "which we believe are among the highest you'll find anywhere." Mead added: "We think the conditions of confinement there are both humane and consistent with all the rights they should be entitled to."

Despite its spartan conditions, the facility in Willacy County, 260 miles south of Austin, is a key to President Bush's drive to create a channel for temporary foreign workers and a path toward legalization for as many as 12 million illegal immigrants living in the United States.

To do so, the government must convince skeptics that it can credibly enforce laws aimed at illegal immigrants and their employers, and can hold and deport those caught by the U.S. Border Patrol. At the same time, the administration and its allies argue that even additional detention beds will be overwhelmed without new channels for legal immigration.

Accordingly, the United States has embarked on a huge prison building and contracting campaign, increasing the number of illegal immigrants detained from 19,718 a day in 2005 to about 26,500 now, and a projected 32,000 this summer.

About 80 percent of ICE's beds are rented at 300 local and state jails nationwide, concentrated in the South and Southwest, or at eight sites run by contractors such as the Corrections Corporation of America and Geo Group Inc., in places such as Houston, San Diego and Aurora, Colo.

ICE recently added a 1,524-bed facility in Stewart County, Ga., and a 512-bed center in Taylor, Tex., for immigrant families, both run by Corrections Corp.

With the new beds, the administration has imprisoned and deported virtually 100 percent of non-Mexicans caught since August, under faster proceedings that deny hearings to all but asylum seekers.

The administration says this has deterred many others. After quadrupling over four years, the number of non-Mexicans apprehended fell 35 percent in 2006, to 108,026.

But immigration experts and U.S. authorities say the impact of the prison boom will be hard to sustain and still is absorbing only a drop in the bucket of illegal immigration. The Border Patrol made 1.1 million apprehensions last year -- mostly Mexicans who were promptly returned across the border -- but estimates 500,000 people evaded capture or entered legally and then overstayed visas.

An additional 630,000 are at large, ignoring deportation orders, and 300,000 more who entered state and local prisons for committing crimes are to be deported but will probably slip through the cracks after completing their sentences.

U.S. authorities acknowledge that gains from the latest crackdown will be fleeting without the major changes the president wants.

"The short answer is, it is not sustainable," Mead said. "There comes a point where we can't detain any more people. Hopefully, prior to getting there, the deterrence factor will kick in."

The increased tempo of operations is a strain. ICE has no modern nationwide system to track its facilities' populations. It relies on an antiquated computer system created in 1984.

Every day since July, six officers have manually tracked and transferred detained immigrants among 24 regional offices, matching bodies to vacant beds and airplane seats in a Detention Operations Coordination Center, Mead said. "We have all of the information," he said. "It's a question of automation."

Legal advocates contend that some of the older facilities where immigrants are housed are in deplorable condition and that growing pains afflict even new facilities.

Under fire in Taylor, for example, ICE has expanded hours of daily schooling for children from one to seven hours to meet Texas guidelines.

In Willacy County, one of the country's poorest, ICE has set up 10 huge tents on concrete pads, surrounded by 14-foot-high chain-link fences looped with barbed wire. Each "sprung structure" holds about 200 men or women, divided into four "pods." Similar temporary buildings were used for troop recreational facilities in Iraq.

The center is part of a chain of facilities in South Texas with 6,700 new immigration detention beds. At a cost of $78 a night per bed (compared with an ICE average of $95 a bed), the Willacy facility is not only cheaper than any bricks-and-mortar prison but also faster to construct, move or dismantle, Mead said.

Detainees are subject to penal system practices, such as group punishment for disciplinary infractions. The tents are windowless and the walls are blank, and no partitions or doors separate the five toilets, five sinks, five shower heads and eating areas. Lacking utensils on some days, detainees eat with their hands.

Because lights are on around the clock, a visitor finds many occupants buried in their blankets throughout the day. The stillness and torpor of the pod's communal room, where 50 to 60 people dwell, are noticeable.

Goodwin described a group of women who huddled in a recreation yard on a recent 40-degree day with a 25-mph wind. "They had no blanket, no sweat shirt, no jacket," she said. "Officers were wearing earmuffs, and detainees were outside for an hour with short-sleeved polyester uniforms and shower shoes and not necessarily socks."

Perhaps more troubling, lawyers said, large numbers of immigrants have been transferred from Boston, New York, New Jersey and Florida, far from their families and lawyers. Because some immigration judges do not permit hearings by teleconference, detainees are essentially deprived of counsel.

Immigration violators in the United States are held on civil grounds and have no right to appointed lawyers. But federal guidelines call for providing them law libraries, telephones and phone numbers for legal aid.

Joining a lawsuit last week, the American Civil Liberties Union alleged that severe overcrowding at a Corrections Corp. facility in San Diego poses an unconstitutional risk to detainees' health and safety, arguing that as administrative detainees, illegal immigrants should be treated better than convicted criminals.

The National Lawyers Guild and five other groups petitioned the Department of Homeland Security last month to set binding regulations for detention sites, saying U.S. standards set in 2000 are not enforceable.

And the New Jersey Civil Rights Defense Committee has announced a campaign to stop ICE's use of county jails.

"The standards are there," said David A. Martin, a former general counsel of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, ICE's predecessor agency, who advocates concentrating detention centers in perhaps 10 cities to ensure access to lawyers and oversight. "But there are some real indicators federal standards are not well monitored or policed. We ought to do better."

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USCIS Hikes Immigration Fees

USCIS plans to increase fees for immigration applications by an average of 96 percent, according to a notice placed yesterday in the Federal Register (Doc E7-1631). For instance, the cost of a green-card application (I-485) will rise from $325 to $905. USCIS says the higher fees will not only pay towards all general and existing costs but will help fund a streamlining of the immigration process, including new technologies and more staff, in an attempt to eliminate the department's notorious backlog. They are also intended to reflect increases in cost of living and inflation.

"The proposed fee increases range from $65 to $2,350, depending on the type of immigration or naturalization benefit for which the application or petition is submitted. Fifteen fees will increase by amounts between $65 and $200; eight fees will increase, and one will decrease, by amounts between $200 and $300; one fee will
increase by amounts between $300 and $400; and six fees will increase more than $400." (From FR Doc E7-1631.)

The jump in the I-485 cost and that of other applications will include the costs of "interim benefits" often filed by applicants while their cases are pending -- permission to work and to travel, for example -- so that these additional fees will not be paid at separate times but all at once. However, it seems the petitioner would still need to file the additional forms but will simply have paid ahead of time. There is no guarantee that the petitioner will need these benefits as USCIS projects and will therefore have paid for services not rendered.

USCIS also claims that the ending of certain temporary admission programs will cut the department's revenue, thereby necessitating increases in fees in other areas. For instance, INA section 245(i) allows relief for particular applicants who pay a $1,000 penalty on top of the application fees -- but only if they filed on or before April 30, 2001. The program can be legally re-enacted but hasn't been, resulting in drastically declining revenue for USCIS -- and further increasing of the undocumented population because people can't adjust their status. USCIS also cites its program of Temporary Protective Status, which it can extend to nationals of certain countries facing a crisis like civil war or natural disaster. Of course if USCIS worries about losing income from the current TPS groups' no longer needing the service, others are available for inclusion.

Immigrants can apply for fee waivers on certain grounds. But, for instance, if granted a fee waiver on the basis of inability to pay, the applicant may lose his/her case because most applicants must show they can support themselves financially once here. Fees can become compounded as asylees do not have to pay application fees, and the costs of their cases get pushed onto other applicants. In addition, petitioners must pay further fees to appeal certain decisions, file to re-open a case, file for a cancellation of removal, etc.

The proposed increases will take effect on April 2. Before that time the public may file opinions on the matter. Several members of Congress have already done so.

(The Washington Post also reported on this.)

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