Thursday I went with a small group of law students and attorneys from an immigrant justice organization to one of my state’s two detention centers for detained immigrants. Since there are no Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities up here, ICE basically rents space in county jails to detain immigrants on their way to court or eventual deportation. Our goal was to do intakes, basically interviews, of the 175 newly detained immigrants in the jail to see if any of them had a case that would merit pro bono legal services.
I spoke with six Chinese restaurant workers, all of whom had been in the U.S. since the early 1990s, none of whom had ever been arrested for any sort of crime. All had been picked up recently for driving – either with a taillight out or speeding – and detained after the local police determined they were possibly in the country illegally. Only one of them spoke a little English. It was one of the sadder half hours I can remember.
Several months ago I read a book by Jennifer 8 Lee (yes, middle name is really 8) called “Fortune Cookie Chronicle,” where she did some investigation on the underground world that staffs the hundreds of thousands of Chinese restaurants that serve bland, not-very-Chinese food in strip malls and small towns across the U.S. From reading this book and other stories about illegal Chinese immigration to the U.S., I can assume at least some of these men paid tens of thousands of dollars to enter the U.S. illegally. They have probably worked 70 hours per week, occasionally asked to travel from state to state or city to city to work for a different restaurant, for the last fifteen years. Only one was under 30, the rest were between 50 and 60 years old. Their faces were so sad and hopeless.
I wanted to so bad to sit there and try to ask them questions, resurrect some of my old Mandarin (although none of them spoke Mandarin as their first language, that much I could tell). I wanted to confirm my theories about how they had arrived here, what states they have lived in, find out if they had wives and children in the U.S. Only one of them had a relative legally in the U.S., a daughter, who lived in North Carolina. That one has a possible but very unlikely claim to immigration relief, the rest are likely to be deported.
I talked to a Cuban with a criminal record who never filed for his residency (all Cubans entrants have a right to file for permanent residency within a certain time frame of their legal or illegal entry) and is now in constant limbo. He served a prison sentence for a deportable crime, but since we have no formal relations with Cuba, he cannot be deported. He was released under an order of supervision but missed some meetings and is now back in detention. I didn’t understand what happens with deportable Cubans, but one of the lawyers explained he would eventually be released under supervision again. If he violated, he would go back in detention, and on and on. He is a person with no place, home, no foreseeable end to living in linbo. He has no chance to become legal in the U.S., and cannot return to his home country.
And of course I talked to more than a dozen Mexicans. About half had been moved to immigration detention after being in jail for something. Most were minor things, like public intoxication. One had been stopped and searched by a police officer while biking to work. The officer found heroin. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not very sympathetic to people here illegally who either use or sell illegal drugs, but I had to wonder why a police officer would stop and search someone riding their bike anyway. My guess is racial profiling and the fact that the guy “looked” illegal.
The other half of the Mexicans I talked to were either taken by ICE from their homes or detained after a city police officer stopped them for a light out on their car, for speeding, or for driving without a license. Like the Chinese, they had no criminal record. They mostly wanted to know when they would get deported. They just wanted to get out of the detention center and get back to Mexico.
Apparently, this is one of the “nice” jails. It was pretty clean and bright, but I don’t think jail is ever nice. Most of the immigrants were depressed and desperate. One guy’s U.S. citizen wife was suffering from leukeumia but he was scared to fight his deportation so he had already signed his removal. Another guy didn’t remember his wife’s cell phone number and was not allowed to access his own phone even to get the numbers to call his family. He had been detained for three weeks and figured his wife and kids didn’t even know what had happened to him. He had just vanished one day…