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Government Investigates Allegations of Abuse in Two Immigration Facilities

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Immigrant attorneys and advocates have compared the detention of Muslims post-9/11 to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Now the government is investigating allegations of abuse in two immigration facilities: Passaic County Jail in Paterson, New Jersey, and the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn.

Right now a report, “Detained in the U.S.A.: Behind the INS Curtain,” by Noah Reibel, who is a student at Columbia School of Journalism.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to a report by one of our own producers, who went out to two Jersey immigration centers. Noah Reibel is a student at the Columbia School of Journalism. Immigrant attorneys and advocates have compared the detention of Muslims post-9/11 to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Now the government is investigating allegations of abuse in two immigration facilities: Passaic County Jail in Paterson, New Jersey, and the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn. Right now we turn to Noah Reibel, who went out to the detention facilities.

NOAH REIBEL: The flag of the Corrections Corporation of America flies outside the INS detention center in Elizabeth, New Jersey. The flag is the only indication that this nondescript warehouse in an industrial no-man’s land in New Jersey is anything other than a storage facility. CCA is one of the largest security companies in the prison business.

On a recent Saturday, a woman and her daughter waited outside the building to visit her brother.

SISTER: They just sent him a letter saying he’s eligible for a green card, about almost a year now. Since he knew they sent him a letter, and he went to immigration. They kept him there. It’s almost six months now. Nobody spoke to him. Nobody asked him why he is in here.

NOAH REIBEL: She and her brother were born in Ethiopia, and she says he was picked up on a minor visa violation, and the government is threatening to deport him back to the country he left 14 years ago. Immigration attorneys and advocates are increasingly concerned about conditions in INS detention facilities.

MEGAN KAY: The detention of immigrants in New Jersey has skyrocketed since 9/11.

NOAH REIBEL: Megan Kay [phon.] is an immigration attorney with Catholic Community Services in Newark.

MEGAN KAY: And now we’re seeing an increased amount of detentions related to the special registration process. Most of those detainees are being held in county jails throughout New Jersey.

NOAH REIBEL: The INS not only contracts with private security companies like CCA, it also contracts detentions with dozens of prisons and jails, where INS detainees are held with the criminal populations.

MEGAN KAY: Well, I mean, there’s frequent problems with commingling of INS detainees and criminal detainees. The county jails are a much tougher place than the Elizabeth Detention Center.

NOAH REIBEL: And Passaic County Prison in Paterson, New Jersey, is reputed to be one of the toughest. Last March, Amnesty International released a report that said INS detainees in Passaic were being subjected to physical and verbal abuse. In October, 75 detainees there signed a statement that said the jail wasn’t fit for human habitation. Six detainees went on a hunger strike in January.

The Center for Constitutional Rights filed suit over the imprisonment and a harsh treatment of immigrants last year. The suit claims that plaintiffs, Muslims from Pakistan and Turkey, were subjected to severe conditions during their detainment, including beatings, verbal abuse, solitary confinement and the denial of right to religious practice. The government moved to have the case dismissed last year, and the CCR has opposed this motion, and a decision is pending.

RACHEL MEEROPOL: From what I can tell, INS detainees, who are individuals in civil confinement, not criminal confinement, are being held in extremely punishing conditions.

NOAH REIBEL: Rachel Meeropol is a fellow at the center. She has been collecting testimony from detainees at Passaic for the past five months.

RACHEL MEEROPOL: The men are squeezed into two dorms. It’s extremely overcrowded. They’re forced to sleep on three-level bunk beds, so close to each other that they can’t move without touching each other. The facility is filthy, and there’s a serious roach infestation. They have no contact visitation whatsoever. They’ve been brutalized by guards. There’s reports of systematic brutalization by the Passaic County guards, as well as some reports against INS officers visiting the facility.

NOAH REIBEL: The INS has steadfastly denied all allegations of abuse and the substandard conditions at their contract facilities. After detainees released their statement in October, the INS said a recent random check at the facility found nothing wrong. But the complaints have not escaped the notice of the federal government, which last year launched an investigation into conditions in Passaic and the Metropolitan Detention Center. The Office of the Inspector General, which is conducting the investigation, was supposed to release a report last October. Rachel Meeropol is one of the attorneys eagerly awaiting their findings.

RACHEL MEEROPOL: If the report truly exposes what I believe is going on at Passaic, then I think the public will be outraged, as they should be.

NOAH REIBEL: Despite repeated requests, no one from the INS or the Passaic County Sheriff’s Department agreed to be interviewed for this report.

DRUM, an immigrant rights organization in Queens, runs a toll-free hotline for INS detainees held in Passaic. With their consent, the organization recorded a few of the callers on March 13th, two months after the hunger strike was over.

DETAINEES: I don’t feel safe in this prison. And I’m in Passaic County Jail. Today I was physically assaulted by one of these officers. Anybody say anything, they beat them up, kick them up. I was slammed into a gate by an officer. Captain [inaudible] was there observing everything. He didn’t say nothing. For six months now, there’s been a lot of physical altercations towards all the detainees by these officers. I feel that my life is really threatened in this jail, and I would like to get out here. All I want is out of this jail.

NOAH REIBEL: Rachel Meeropol recognized one of the voices on the recordings.

RACHEL MEEROPOL: What I can say is that I’ve met with him. I find his description of what’s happened extremely credible. It’s been backed up by quite a few of the other detainees. And my impressions of him is that, you know, he’s a very intelligent guy who’s been caught up in something that is completely unjust.

NOAH REIBEL: During the War in Iraq, the Department of Homeland Security ordered political asylum seekers from 33 countries held until their status could be determined. The special registration program called for men from countries on the nation’s terror watchlist to voluntarily appear at INS centers to be photographed, fingerprinted and, in some cases, interrogated. The program resulted in the arrest and detention of over 2,000 mostly Muslim foreigners.

Kay has spent a good part of the last few months helping her clients comply with the confusing new regulations. And while the government said these policies were necessary to strengthen national security, she believes they’re having the opposite effect.

MEGAN KAY: The fear that this is creating is devastating to the communities and, I think, in the end, will hurt the safety of the United States, not in any way help it.

NOAH REIBEL: Why?

MEGAN KAY: Because you’re pushing thousands and thousands of people underground further, instead of what we need to do. The whole theory of this registration is to bring to light who’s in this country, so we know who’s here. And what we’re in fact doing, though, is making them fear the police and the government, which is just the opposite of what the government says it wants to do.

NOAH REIBEL: Fear of their government brings thousands of immigrants to the United States every year. It was what brought the woman outside Elizabeth and her brother to the U.S. 14 years ago. Now, as she described her brother’s predicament, she said she was afraid again. She was afraid to speak out about her brother’s situation. She wore large oversized dark glasses that concealed her face from the security guards in the jails.

SISTER: My mom lives with him now.

NOAH REIBEL: And then, as we spoke, one of the guards approached.

What — yeah?

GUARD: What are you doing?

NOAH REIBEL: I’m interviewing people about their friends that they’re coming to visit here in detention.

GUARD: I don’t think you could do this on our property, though. You have to have a special permission to come in here and interview anybody while you’re on this premises.

NOAH REIBEL: After the interruption, I tried to pick up where we left off. There were many unanswered questions. How long did her brother expect to be held? What would he do if he were deported? But as we spoke, her daughter’s eyes darted anxiously from the microphone in my hand to the security guard who lingered nearby.

SISTER: I don’t want to read my brother’s name. I don’t want mine, either.

NOAH REIBEL: I wanted to learn more.

DAUGHTER: We’re done. Thank you.

NOAH REIBEL: But the interview is over. I’m Noah Reibel.

AMY GOODMAN: And you are listening to Democracy Now! When we come back, Arundhati Roy and Howard Zinn. Stay with us.

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