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Getting Played & Slow Played in Immigration Jail
[ Non-fiction : Incarceration Stories/ ]

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Juan was in custody for 2 months on simple immigration charges. But with no outside contact, no judicial hearing, no indication that he would ever be released, and only one hour per week to see sunshine he became borderline suicidal.

We’ll call him Juan. Without proper papers it doesn’t really matter what name you were born with, you’ll be treated like an impersonal number once you get inside the system.

Juan was – and still is – a hard working, soft-spoken, sympatico fellow who wouldn’t hurt a flea but would give the shirt off his back to somebody in need. Smart, well educated, and well traveled, Juan came to the USA before the days of the 9-11 attacks, back in the pre- Patriot Act days. Back then tourists were considered relatively harmless. If you violated your visa and got caught, you’d be deported without much fuss or botheration.

Many of those who intentionally overstayed their visas got low-paying domestic jobs and were happily paid under the table as a critical component of the middle class American economy. Juan was a good carpenter with excellent English language skills who showed up early and worked until late. He charged 20 percent less than his competitors and soon had a waiting list of eager homeowners ready to hire him for remodeling projects.

But somewhere along the way he forgot to renew his tourist visa. Then he decided to stick around illegally. He stayed in the Land of Opportunity, but in doing so he became a lawbreaker. Several times he narrowly escaped detection by local police who ran his identification during routine traffic stops. Then once – which is all it takes when you are an outlaw – he ran into an Immigration and Naturalization Service roadblock and got nabbed.

The place he got popped was set up as a permanent fixture on the flat Texas landscape with funds from the then-new Department of Homeland Security. Manned 24/7 by Border Patrol agents, the sole purpose of the facility is to find and detain those like Juan who are inside the USA illegally. By the time he was picked up he had overstayed his visa by about six years, and the laws had changed rather drastically during that period in American history.

The arresting officer told him that he would have a hearing in front of a judge within a day or two, but later Juan’s attorney pointed out that the arresting officer was not familiar with the Patriot Act. According to the lawyer, tourist visa violators are never entitled to a hearing in front of a judge. Get picked up with an expired tourist visa these days and you will either be deported or held for an indefinite period of time.

The lawyer his friends hired claims he tried to contact Juan, but was told that his case had not yet been entered into the computer. For all practical purposes, an inmate who does not have a case number cannot be represented by an attorney, because he doesn’t yet exist within the system. Meanwhile Juan’s friends deposited money in an account so that he could have funds to use at the prison commissary. At the commissary inmates can buy postage stamps and phone cards in order to make contact with friends, family members, or lawyers on the outside.

But a week later the money was refunded to his friends, they said. They reported that prison officials explained that “Juan is not a US citizen, so he is not entitled to have an account with money in it.” Asked how he was supposed to get a phone card to make calls, his friends were allegedly told “Maybe he can borrow one from an inmate who is a US citizen.” But Juan was being held in an immigration lockup, where all inmates were, presumably, foreigners. The idea that he could borrow a phone card from an American was a cynical joke.

According to the lawyer, international agreements required that the embassy of Juan’s country of origin be notified immediately after his arrest, but they were never notified. The embassy instead ended up calling the prison, on the request of Juan’s lawyer. “Why didn’t you notify us?” they asked. “We’re notifying you now,” the prison authorities allegedly answered.

Meantime, Juan was kept in the dark – both figuratively and literally. He had no outside contact, no information about his case, no hearing in front of a judge, and no idea what his legal rights and prison privileges were. Once a week, for an hour, he was allowed to go outside and walk around in the prison yard. The rest of the time he said that he was kept in a crowded, windowless cell. He became anxious, then depressed, then hopeless. For the first time in his life he began to ponder suicide.

After being detained for almost a month, he was assigned a case number. But his lawyer still could not contact him because his designated case officer went on a 10-day vacation the same day that the case number was assigned. Juan was getting the classic prison slow-play treatment.

Juan languished in jail for almost two months. Then, unexpectedly, he was taken out of his cell in the middle of the night and shackled to the floor of a transport van. Within hours he was being escorted in handcuffs through the airport, where authorities put him on a plane back to his country of origin. Juan’s family back home paid for the ticket, and soon he was reunited with them.

His advice to other foreigners: If you enter the USA on a tourist visa, do not make the mistake of overstaying it. The consequences are severe, and the slow-play is excruciating enough to perhaps inspire escape through suicide.

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