21. Inside INS Detention Centers: Racism, Abuse, and No Accountability

by Project Censored
Published: Last Updated on

Source: COVERTACTION QUARTERLY, Date: Summer 1996, Title: “Behind the Razor Wire: Inside INS Detention Centers,” Author: Mark Dow

SSU Censored Researchers: Tina Barni, Meiko Takechi

With the overpopulation of undocumented immigrants, those in the custody of the Department of Justice’s Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) are now being widely transferred to local jails across the country. This transferring of prisoners has not only become a means of reducing the size of immigrants in the INS’s nine service processing centers, but it has also become an abusive and frequently lucrative business.

The immigrants are not only being held in contract facilities operated by such private security firms as Wackenhut Inc. and Corrections Corporation of America, but also in some 900 local jails across the country. INS claims that the transfers are due to overcrowded situations in its detention centers, but detainees claim that transfers are used as a form of intimidation and punishment. “Detention-for-profit” is also another issue. Some local governments have been paid as much as 82 million to hold the detained. Local jails and corrections companies have been projecting profits from INS contracts. Employment has also been created out of the influx of transfers. Louisiana’s Oakdale Detention Center, one of the largest INS detention facilities in the country, was created and widely supported by local officials and citizens to replace jobs when the town’s paper mill closed down. Conversely, detainees are also being considered by the Defense Department for use as a form of cheap and controlled labor.

Detainees are frequently subjected to verbal and physical abuse. The abuse is often undocumented and not investigated. In 1995, the INS finally issued a report admitting that it should have had more oversight of its Esmor facility—which was a contract facility that was closed down after an uprising by detainees protesting inhumane conditions, indefinite detention, and guard brutality. And while this self-criticism by the INS was welcomed, it has for years ignored similar complaints of mistreatment in its facilities.

Racism and a lack of accountability are also present, with discrimination extending to whistle-blowing INS officers who try to help. The Krome North Service Processing Center, an isolated INS detention facility at the edge of the Everglades in Miami, has a particularly notorious history of brutality and is the site of hostile activity against Africans.

Watchdog agencies have done little to remedy the situation. The Justice Department’s own watchdog agency, the Office of Inspector General (OIG), lacks both the resources and independence according to Human Rights Watch/America. Many of the OIG investigators were either Border Patrol or INS agents. Some 1,300 complaints against INS officers to the Justice Department have yielded only nine prosecutions, six guilty pleas, and one conviction.

COMMENTS: “Last year, the media did, of course, devote a lot of coverage to the ‘issue’ of immigration,” says author Mark Dow. “But according to the terms of the debate, both ‘pro’ and ‘con’ tend to share a view of immigrants as somehow alien. Being a notch below humanity, they easily become invisible victims. That’s theoretical; on a more practical level, I think it is simply hard for many people—including, in my experience, reporters—to believe that our government effectively sanctions the kinds of abuse I have tried to document. Also, the victims in these cases often fear speaking out, since they remain at the mercy of the system and the individuals who have abused them. Sometimes they have attorneys to speak for them; often they do not. So, in the limited coverage this issue does receive, the spokespeople for the abusive system (in this case the INS) usually get the last word.”

Dow believes wider media exposure of this subject would “first of all, help potential victims. The public, if informed, would have the opportunity to respond one way or the other. I believe that if the issue were covered honestly, then public opinion would increase the protection of those in INS custody, however slightly. As Tony Ebibillo, a Nigerian who was beaten and forcibly tranquilized by Miami INS officials, put it several years ago, ‘I am quite sure that everybody will agree with me that despite the fact that I was residing here illegally, I still have the right to be treated humanely.’

“In June 1996, the Office of the Inspector General issued a report entitled Alleged Deception of Congress. Interestingly, the report was released to Congress, but not to the public. The report details the elaborate efforts of Miami INS officials to deceive a visiting congressional delegation about the Miami INS operations, including the dangerous overcrowding of the Krome detention center (see my ‘Deception, Dehumanization and the INS,’ Haiti Progress, July 24-August 7, 1996).

“This deception received national media attention. In its aftermath, officials seem determined to make cosmetic changes to the local detention center. Reporters and activists have been allowed into Krome—a sure sign that the INS has something to sell. Time will tell how substantive the changes are. If Krome is indeed made more efficient, living conditions may improve for detainees—a welcome change. But one should not lose sight of the bigger picture: more and more immigrants are being detained and the privatization of detention continues to grow. Streamlining the INS detention machine—what a Pennsylvania attorney has termed a gulag—means the likelihood of even less (if that’s possible) meaningful oversight of what goes on inside the INS detention centers.

“In October and November 1996, a group of Indian Sikhs seeking political asylum went on a month-long hunger strike, beginning in a county jail in the Florida panhandle, and ending at the Krome detention center in Miami. INS officials met with the strikers and apparently convinced them that their cases would be fairly reviewed. The ‘detainees,’ as usual, have little recourse, particularly given the new, increasingly repressive immigration laws signed by President Clinton. They can only hope for the best,” says Dow.

According to Dow, his article in CovertAction Quarterly was used by attorneys in Pennsylvania to help raise money for a pro bono legal project for representing detained Chinese refugees, and the Amnesty International Refugee Office in San Francisco has used it as an educational tool.