AP Study Shows "The High Cost" of Immigrant Detention

By Diego Graglia, FI2W web editor

Raymond Soeoth, a 41-year-old Pentecostal minister from Indonesia, spent more than two years under detention by Immigration and Customs Enforcement after his asylum claim was denied. Even after he agreed to be deported, he was drugged through forced injections — only to learn, while hallucinating at the airport, that he could not leave because his paperwork was not in order.

After becoming a plaintiff in a class-action suit, Soeoth was allowed to stay in the U.S. for at least two more years.

Soeoth’s case is one of several dramatic stories of undocumented immigrants that portray a disfunctional detention system in a special investigation The Associated Press published today. According to the news organization, “(a) computer analysis of every person being held on a recent Sunday night shows that most did not have a criminal record and many were not about to leave the country — voluntarily or via deportation.”

Sarjina Emy - Photo: AP

Sarjina Emy - Photo: AP

The report also narrates the story of Bangladeshi-born honors student Sarjina Emy, 20, who grew up in Orlando, Fla.

Emy, whose parents brought her to the U.S. in 1993 when they applied for asylum, has been detained for over a year and a half.

The family’s asylum application was denied, but an attorney advised them to stay and apply for a permanent labor certificate, which they were granted. They assumed this meant the old deportation order, related to the failed asylum claim, had been cleared.

Instead, when Emy was expecting to go to college on a scholarship, ICE agents raided the family home at dawn in June 2007, and arrested the entire family.

Emy’s parents have since been deported. She remained locked up while appealing her case, but agreed to be deported Feb. 18.

“I keep saying, ‘What have I done?’ and they say, ‘Well, your father …’ I understand what my father did, but what did I do? I’ve never seen a judge. … No one knows who I am or what I’ve been through.”

[The Associated Press]

The report is based on an ICE database of 32,000 people under detention on the evening of Jan. 25, which The A.P. obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The data show that 18,690 immigrants had no criminal conviction, not even for illegal entry or low-level crimes like trespassing. More than 400 of those with no criminal record had been incarcerated for at least a year. A dozen had been held for three years or more; one man from China had been locked up for more than five years.

Nearly 10,000 had been in custody longer than 31 days — the average detention stay that ICE cites as evidence of its effective detention management.

Especially tough bail conditions are exacerbated by disregard or bending of the rules regarding how long immigrants can be detained.

Immigration lawyers interviewed for the story note that a big portion of the detainees are not illegal immigrants.

Many are asylum seekers who fear being killed if they go back to their home countries. There are also many cases of longtime residents “who may be eligible to stay under other criteria, or whose applications for permanent residency were lost or mishandled.”

In a Kafkaesque turn, there are some people who seem to have been forgotten in the system.

ICE spokespeople interviewed said the detention system is the best way to ensure that immigrants will show up at court dates and leave the country when they have to. They are not allowed to be granted bail, a basic right most criminal suspects enjoy.

“We’re immigrants, and it makes it seem like it’s worse than a criminal,” Sarjina Emy said. “I always thought America does so much for justice. I really thought you get a fair trial. You actually go to court. (U.S. authorities) know what they are doing. Now, I figured out that it only works for criminal citizens.”

Keeping people detained costs over ten times as much as fitting them with electronic ankle bracelets, which tracks them “at an almost perfect compliance rate, according to ICE’s own stats.”

Emy, the Florida student, who does not speak Bangla and “never imagined a future without college,” was deported to Bangladesh Feb. 18. “Because the asylum application had been filed on behalf of the entire family,” she never got a hearing.

Immigration law, said her attorney Petia Vimitrova Knowles, “is the only United States law where we punish the children for the actions of their parents.”

AboutDiego Graglia
Diego Graglia is a bilingual multimedia journalist who has worked at major media outlets in the U.S. and Latin America. He is currently the editor-in-chief at Expansion, Meixco’s leading business magazine.