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Exclusive: Dave Pierre on Surviving 1,144 Days Locked Up Inside the Failed U.S. Immigration System

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In a story of life and death that intersects with 20 years of failed immigration policy, we look at the case of Dave Pierre, who has just been released after three years in immigration detention. Pierre is an immigrant from Antigua who first came to the United States when he was two years old. In 2009 he went to pay a traffic fine and was arrested for illegally entering the country. He was first sent to prison and then placed in immigrant detention, where he spent the next three years seeking his release and fighting his deportation. He wrote letters to anyone who would listen — including Democracy Now! — documenting the 1,144 days he spent in detention centers and county jails from Alabama to Pennsylvania. On October 25, just two weeks ago, Pierre was suddenly told he was free to go. This came after a fellow immigrant from Antigua, 35-year-old Tiombe Carlos, committed suicide at the York County Jail in Pennsylvania, where they were both being held along with about 900 other immigrants. Pierre joins us to talk about his prolonged detention and how his newfound freedom may be related to his fellow detainee’s suicide. We are also joined by Abraham Paulos, executive director of Families for Freedom, who is calling for an independent investigation into Carlos’ suicide.

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

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to a story of life and death that intersects with 20 years of failed immigration policy. Dave Pierre is an immigrant from Antigua who had been living in the United States for more than decade when he went to pay a traffic fine in 2009 and was arrested for illegally entering the country. He was first sent to prison and then placed in immigrant detention, where he spent the next three years seeking his release and fighting his deportation. He wrote letters to anyone who would listen, including Democracy Now!, documenting the 1,144 days he spent in detention centers and county jails, from Alabama to Pennsylvania.

AMY GOODMAN: Then, on October 25th, just two weeks ago, Dave Pierre was suddenly told he was free to go. This came after a fellow immigrant from Antigua, 35-year-old Tiombe Carlos, committed suicide at the same jail he was in, the York County Jail in Pennsylvania, where they were both being held along with about 900 other immigrants.

Well, after many calls in the past year to our producer Renée Feltz, on Tuesday Dave Pierre joined Democracy Now! in person. He talked about his prolonged detention, how his newfound freedom may be related to his fellow detainee’s suicide. We were also joined by Abraham Paulos, the executive director of Families for Freedom, which helped support Pierre. We invited someone from Immigration and Customs Enforcement to join us or provide comment, but they didn’t respond to multiple requests. I began by asking Dave Pierre how he first came to the United States.

DAVE PIERRE: I came to the United States with my mom when I was two years old, came to New Jersey, to school in Edison Job Corps. I got a trade, moved to New Brunswick. And as time goes by, I get caught up into the street life. You know, I had a conviction in '91, went to prison, got deported from Louisiana to Antigua. And while I was in Antigua, I got—there have been—nobody was there. They just, you know, detained me in Antigua. In 1994, I came back because of my ex—my son's mom had a drug addiction, and the kids was on the street. So I came back to take care of my family. And when I came back, I get caught up again in the street, and I went back to prison. And in 1997, I was released. And ever since, from ’97 to 2009, I was clean—no problem with the law, no issue with anything.

In 2009, March 11th, I went to take care of a traffic violation in Freehold, New Jersey. And that’s when immigration came down. They have a detainer on me. They were looking for me. And that’s when I was indicted for reentry. And I went to reentry court, went to the federal court in New Jersey, in Trenton, New Jersey, and the federal judge was kind of confused, because her statement—I’ve been here for so long with no criminal activity, the reentry was kind of impossible. But, anyway, I got 18 months for that. And most of the time was in the county, in the county in Freehold, New Jersey. And then I went—from there, I went to federal prison in Pennsylvania. And from—on March—on September 7, 2010, my time was up, and immigration picked me up at that time. And I’ve been in immigration detention since I got released two weeks ago.

AMY GOODMAN: Why were you, even though your time was up a year before?

DAVE PIERRE: Well, my time was up, and they was trying to remove me back to my country. And being I was removed before, they figured it would be easier, which it’s not, because 20 years ago is different than now. Twenty years ago, they needed a birth certificate to just put you on a plane; now they need more than a birth certificate, and I don’t have those doc—I never lived in the country to have those documents. So I keep fighting my case. And I fight my case. I fight my case as much as I can with no attorney. I lost my case in 2011. And when the judge in York, Pennsylvania, told me I cannot appeal his decision, and I was like, “Why can’t I? It’s my choice to appeal the decision.” So I appealed the decision anyway. And the [inaudible] remanded the case back to the court.

And ever since I appealed the judge’s decision, that’s when my transfers begin. I’ve been to seven detention centers in 25 days, from York, Pennsylvania, to Louisiana, Louisiana to Alabama. I was taken to Alabama on a bus on a Sunday by myself, no other detainee but me, by myself on a Sunday to Alabama, on a Sunday, to DeKalb County in Alabama. Thursday, I was transferred back to Alabama on the bus—

AMY GOODMAN: Back to Louisiana.

DAVE PIERRE: Back to Louisiana, from Alabama to Louisiana. From Louisiana—from Louisiana, I went to the federal penitentiary, Oakdale. And everywhere I go, it’s like every two, three days, “Pack it up. You’re leaving. Pack it up. You’re leaving.” And my question to the officials: “Why am I being transferred so much?” I was told by several ICE officers, oh, I got caught up into the—into the transfer.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you about Tiombe Carlos, who died of an apparent suicide in York County Prison after being held in detention, just like you, for nearly three years, despite her well-documented severe mental disability and calls by her family for her release. She came to the U.S. as a legal permanent resident 30 years ago, was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia at the age of 15. Physicians for Human Rights verified that diagnosis in 2011 and recommended intense medical treatment and also suggested she be put in the care of her family. But she wasn’t, and she committed suicide. Did you know her in prison?

DAVE PIERRE: Yes, well, they separate the females and the males, but as time goes by, I’ve been in the prison for so long that other individuals tell me about her situation, tell me about her. But what I know about her, that she attempt suicide before, and immigration didn’t pay attention to that. This was the second attempt now. The first attempt she did it, they caught her. And they were like, OK, they stop it, and then they remove her from that situation. And they put her in a cell—they put her by herself again. And this time when she tried doing it this time, she succeeded, which is kind of sad that she have to get out of detention that way, you know, because she’d been in detention for a period of time, over 600-something days, just as I am.

And when I asked about this, you know—when they called me to get released, I was shocked. They said, “Mr. Pierre, you’re leaving.” I said, “I’m leaving?” You know, and I said, “Why?” I already know what happened, because, you know, they like to tell you things in a piece by piece, but I already know what happened. So, it take for her to commit suicide for her—for them to take a look at my situation to have me released, which is not fair.

AMY GOODMAN: And they just released you?

DAVE PIERRE: They just released me.

AMY GOODMAN: Unconditionally? You can stay in the country?

DAVE PIERRE: No, no. They gave me a paper, which I have here, say, “Report to the Virginia office.” I live in Washington, D.C. And I went to the Virginia office like a week later. And the guy looked at the paper, and he didn’t say a word to me. He said, “I will see you next May, May 20th, 2014.” That’s it.

AMY GOODMAN: So, do you face deportation?

DAVE PIERRE: Well, as far as—well, they didn’t even say. They didn’t tell me nothing was going on with that deportation. They haven’t told me if I’m—I’m still face deportation, if I’m still be deported. They haven’t—nobody have talked to me about that situation.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, neither you nor Tiombe, the young woman who committed suicide at York, were being held on criminal charges.

DAVE PIERRE: No, it was all—all detention.

AMY GOODMAN: But you were held for more than three years.

DAVE PIERRE: More than three years in detention.

AMY GOODMAN: And did they explain why her suicide would have you released?

DAVE PIERRE: Well, because it opens a—it opened an interesting topic, because why detention? We’ve been in detention for so long. And the question is now: Why we have to be in detention for this long period of time for someone to take their life? Which is not—it’s uncalled for.

AMY GOODMAN: Which leads us to the conditions in these detention centers.

DAVE PIERRE: Condition, yes, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: You have traveled through many detention centers. You even mailed a sandwich to Families for Freedom to show the kind of food you were being given. Talk about the conditions.

DAVE PIERRE: Well, every condition—every detention I go to is different. You know, it was—like I said, the sandwich that I mailed to Families for Freedom, I was in Etowah County, Alabama. And the food in the detention centers is—it’s terrible. You know, I’m going to keep it as raw as I can: It’s terrible. You know, in York County Prison, they give you one meal every day: in the morning, cereal every morning, and eggs every morning. Just they don’t change it at all.

AMY GOODMAN: But you have three meals every day?

DAVE PIERRE: We have three meals, yeah, breakfast, lunch and dinner. But it’s basically the same thing over and over and over again—not warm, not lukewarm, ice cold. No microwave over there. Louisiana, the food was a little better, because it’s a little warm. I was in Elizabeth, New Jersey, CCA. That’s a detention center. It’s all detainees. So the treatment was detaining, was different. There was—they was going by detention policy.

AMY GOODMAN: So some are the immigration detention facilities, where people haven’t committed criminal acts.

DAVE PIERRE: Yes, ma’am.

AMY GOODMAN: And then some are jails, where you’re like—

DAVE PIERRE: Just jails, county jails, where you just mix with county people.

AMY GOODMAN: Like at Edison.

DAVE PIERRE: Like, yes, mixed with county people. You know, I was mixed with county people. I had cellmate of county doing 40 years, robbing—you know, murder or child molesters. We’re all mixed with these people in that county—in that county jail, York County.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about York County, the jail there, and what the conditions were like—the reports of guards pitting prisoner against prisoner?

DAVE PIERRE: Yeah, yeah, yeah. They have—recently, they had a—they call it a “retarded Olympics.” And they put in each of the—

AMY GOODMAN: Who calls it that?

DAVE PIERRE: The guards that work there. That’s the name they give it, “retarded Olympics.” And they have detainee—not detainees, county people. Well, the unfortunate ones that don’t have no commissary, nobody come visit them, fight each other for coffee, food, etc., etc. You know, and that just came out of the—you know, officers got suspended for that, and, you know, the investigation is still going on. But just to let you know, in York County, there’s been suicide attempts and suicide in the past months, county peoples such as detainees. You know, it’s like every 30—every 30 to 60 days, you hear there’s a code: Oh, somebody committed suicide. Oh, somebody committed suicide.

AMY GOODMAN: David, can you talk about the effect on your family? You have six children.

DAVE PIERRE: Yes, I have six children. I have two in the military and—

AMY GOODMAN: Where are they serving in the military?

DAVE PIERRE: Angelica is in—she’s in Texas right now. She did two tours already.


DAVE PIERRE: And Rahim, he’s in—he’s in the Navy, so who telling where he be at. He’s home with his mom now in Florida. You know, and my kids—my kids wonder that why—why am I being held in detention for something I did 20-something years ago?

AMY GOODMAN: Abraham Paulos, can you give us the big picture that David Pierre is drawing for us in his own case as he traveled from one prison to another, ultimately released because a fellow Antiguan prisoner, who also had not committed a crime but was detained for three years, committed suicide?

ABRAHAM PAULOS: Right. I mean, I think the biggest picture here is sort of legislation that was passed in 1996 that started this language around mandatory detention. And what mandatory detention is, is that if you’re considered an aggravated felon, which doesn’t have to be aggravated or a felony in immigration purposes, what this does is that it puts you in a category where you don’t get bond, right? It puts you in a category where you have to stay locked up while your whole case is going.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, an “aggravated felon”?

ABRAHAM PAULOS: An aggravated felon could be a categorization that immigration puts out there that could almost be anything. In 1996, there was the Antiterrorism [and] Effective Death Penalty Act and also the Illegal Immigration [Reform and] Immigrant Responsibility Act, the IIRIRA. And what it did was expand deportable crimes. And they put these crimes into two categories: one being crimes involving moral turpitude, which is sort of like misdemeanors—is probably the best way to describe it—in the criminal legal system, and then you have what is known as an aggravated felon. What that means is that if you’ve done time over 364 days or something that, under the act, they consider violent or, I would probably say, dangerous, a dangerous crime. They don’t really explain it, and it’s quite vague. The impact of being an aggravated felon means that you will be subjected to mandatory detention, which is what Dave went through for years, and you couldn’t get bond. And a lot of this time, why that is there, we don’t really know. I mean, I think it’s arbitrary detention, is probably the best way to explain it.

AMY GOODMAN: Even though you’ve served time in jail—

ABRAHAM PAULOS: Oh, for sure.

AMY GOODMAN: You serve two years in jail for a drug offense; still, decade later, he’s picked up—more than a decade later.

ABRAHAM PAULOS: Right. In 1996, they made it retroactive, so it doesn’t matter if you’ve committed a crime after the legislation had passed. They can go as far back as the '70s, the ’80s, the ’90s. You could almost do maybe a month in jail, right, and served out your sentence. Let's say if it was for a sale of a controlled substance, and you might have even gotten probation or parole, right? They can still come back, right now, raid your house at 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning, take you and have you under mandatory detention.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about Tiombe, what happened to her.

ABRAHAM PAULOS: Well, my heart goes out to the family, especially what she’s gone through throughout her whole life. With the Tiombe Carlos case, when it—Dave was the one that actually told us about her, says, “Hey, there’s this Antiguan person in there. We might want to look into it.” When we started looking into it, the most outrageous thing that we had seen was her mental disability. We saw that she was in need of some intensive, intensive support and intensive care. We think the Tiombe Carlos case is not unusual. It was unusual that it came to our desk, but we do think that there are many people with mental health problems languishing in detention centers. And Tiombe Carlos, again, under the mandatory detention statute, was mandatorily detained, and she had been detained since February of 2011.

AMY GOODMAN: What would immigration reform look like at the national level? The DREAMers who have been protesting, the young people.

ABRAHAM PAULOS: I think immigration reform on the national level—I think there needs to be sort of a separation between the criminal legal system and the immigration system. We’ve already, as a society, sort of entrusted this criminal legal system to sort of say, “Hey, alright, look, you’ve paid your debt to society. This is your sentence.” Right now we’re looking at folks, non-citizens, getting practically sentenced to life, right? Which means that they cannot come back into the United States. So I would say that would be the biggest thing, is sort of separating the criminal legal system from the immigration system—and also repealing a lot of the laws that the 1996 legislation put us in. What’s been sort of, you know, put out there right now as immigration reform is only adding to the 1996 laws. It’s only adding more enforcement, more sort of—more convictions that will lead you to deportation.

AMY GOODMAN: Families for Freedom has asked for an evaluation of what happened with Tiombe Carlos.

ABRAHAM PAULOS: Independent, an independent investigation, because in the beginning when they wrote their sort of notice, four of the offices that are going to look into the suicide all come from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. And so, what we’re saying is we want an independent investigation, outside of those that were supposed to take care of her, because we saw how that worked out.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Dave Pierre, let’s end with that question to you: What does immigration reform look like in this country that would satisfy you?

DAVE PIERRE: Well, to satisfy me and all the immigrants in this country, we just need an opportunity. We just need a better system, a better fix to the system. It’s broken. Bad. It’s broken bad. I’ve witnessed it, three years in detention. It’s broken bad. It does need to be fixed.

AMY GOODMAN: How does it feel to be free?

DAVE PIERRE: It’s wonderful. I didn’t thought—I didn’t thought this day would have come, you know. I know it would have come, but I didn’t know it would have come on somebody taking a life. And it’s wonderful to be free. It feels good. Now I could, you know, let everybody know my situation, my story. So, I hope for the next person that go after me, won’t have to go through the same thing that I went through or the female, Tiombe, went through, to take their life just to get released.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Dave Pierre. He spent three years in immigrant detention centers and county jails, from Alabama to Pennsylvania, came to this country when he was two from Antigua. He raised six children. Two of them serve in the U.S. military. He was released two weeks ago after a fellow immigrant from Antigua committed suicide at the York County Jail in Pennsylvania where they were both being held. He was joined by Abraham Paulos, the executive director of Families for Freedom. We’ll continue to follow the case. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute, as Sharif Abdel Kouddous joins us, just back from Cairo, Egypt. Stay with us.

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