Every year, thousands of undocumented immigrants are lost, and some are abused, by America’s deportation system. This is my uncle’s story.
by Titania Kumeh
As we buried my grandmother on a hot February day in 2011 near the Bahamian capital of Nassau, my family’s uninhibited, guttural wails filled the graveyard. Beside me, sweating in the heat, sat my mother—a native islander who has lived in California for nearly three decades. Screaming ‘Mommy!’ and crying uncontrollably as my grandmother’s lavender casket was lowered into the concrete tomb, she struck her body with her fist to beat back her emotions. My uncle helped me hold down her arms, tears streaming down his massive face. Next to him, my aunt keened hysterically when she wasn’t collapsing in her chair.
As if their grief were not enough, an unsolved mystery was weighing heavily on the minds of almost everyone who was there: Johnny—my uncle, the youngest of my grandmother’s three children—was nowhere to be seen. Eyes searched for his figure in the church aisles and then scanned the humid gravesite’s hotel-scarred horizon. But he never showed.
We all hoped that nothing had gone wrong on Johnny’s trip to Nassau from the United States. But several days after the funeral, we began to learn just how badly his journey had gone awry.
Only a week before, shortly after learning of my grandmother’s fatal heart attack, Johnny and I had been at my mom’s house in a small suburb in Orange County, California. Our eyes bloodshot from crying, the three of us huddled around a mahogany dining table. My mom, a cute, dark-skinned woman with a bob hairstyle, sat at the head of the table planning our journey to the funeral. She announced that she and I would travel to Nassau together on a nine-hour flight. She had obtained her United States citizenship papers years ago, and I was born here, so traveling was a non-issue for us.
But my uncle? He was another story. At that point, Johnny, an immigrant from the Bahamas with three U.S.–born children, had been living in the country without documentation for nearly 18 years, one of the estimated 11 million people currently living under those circumstances. My mom shook her head at the predicament he faced. She had long warned him that a dilemma like this could arise.
Johnny had arrived in the U.S. in the mid-’90s. A 5-foot, 6-inch karate aficionado and a jokester, he’d fallen in love with a woman in Nassau and followed her to Miami. At the time, he had a tourist visa that allowed him to stay in the U.S. for up to three months. But when he learned that he was going to be a father for the first time, he ignored his exit deadline to stay and help raise his first son. He and his girlfriend rented an apartment together, where they had two more children over the next five years.
Johnny bussed tables, prepared conch fritters at a seafood restaurant called Jumbo’s, and landed occasional part-time work as an extra in low-budget films. He didn’t have a driver’s license or a Social Security card, but he and his girlfriend were able to make ends meet and support their children better than they could have back home. When Johnny’s relationship with his girlfriend fell apart, he moved to California, where he stayed with my mom and me. He cleaned houses and painted storefronts, but never earned enough to live on his own or help out with bills. Every little bit of money he earned, he sent to his kids.
Johnny had consulted lawyers in Miami and California about getting a green card (the document that noncitizens must have to hold legal residence and employment). They all told him the same thing: He didn’t meet the financial and employment criteria.
If he’d had a valid visa, his best bet for achieving permanent residency would have been to marry a citizen. Because he did not qualify for refugee status or for asylum from persecution, his only other hope was to have someone petition on his behalf: a potential employer, or a parent or sibling who was a citizen. He had asked my mom, but she was not yet a U.S. citizen at the time, nor did she have the money to hire expensive lawyers who might not have been able to do anything for him.
Without a green card, a driver’s license, a Social Security card, or a valid visa, Johnny had never been able to get a job that would pay what he needed even to apply for a green card. He lived with the risk that the authorities would find and deport him, and we always feared that it would happen.
Eventually, Johnny moved out of my mom’s house to work as a live-in caretaker for an elderly woman he had met at church. Becoming “legal” didn’t seem like an urgent necessity for years—until my grandmother died.
So there we sat at the dining room table, brainstorming ways to help Johnny make it to his mother’s funeral in the Bahamas without getting caught by the authorities and deported. Then Johnny confessed that he couldn’t find his only form of identification: his Bahamian passport.
“Oh, Lord,” my mom groaned, responding to this latest revelation. She lectured him. Then, with a sigh, she advised him: “Call the Bahamian embassy and see if they’ll give you the travel documents you need. Tell them your mother died.” Her voice broke. “The thing is, you’ve been here for so long without your papers. The U.S. might not let you come back to this country after you leave.” She flung up her hands, letting them drop to the table with a thud.
My mom, a public health nurse, had come to the U.S. through a student visa that she used to attend nursing school. After a decade of working graveyard shifts in convalescent homes while attending nursing school in the afternoons, she landed a job with an employer who petitioned for her residency and paid the required processing fee. Still, hiring a lawyer to help manage the process cost my mother almost $10,000. That’s not counting the $2,000 that she paid to a fly-by-night lawyer who took her money and disappeared.
My mom knew how hard it is to win the immigration game. “There are only a few ways that you can become a citizen over here,” she said. “That’s why there are so many illegals.”
Johnny agreed that getting his passport from the Bahamian embassy was his best shot at getting home to the funeral. From the embassy, located in Miami, he could go straight to Nassau on a 55-minute flight. Johnny’s plan seemed doable enough, but how would he get to Miami? He couldn’t fly there without identification. A train would cost too much, my mom said, and take too long. The cheapest option, we all agreed, also seemed to be the best. He would take the Greyhound bus.
The next morning my mom bought Johnny’s ticket at the bus station in Anaheim. She handed him enough cash to cover his plane ticket and a hotel room just in case, adding to the money that his pastor had collected for him. We waited until his bus arrived, then watched as he boarded and it chugged out of sight into the traffic.
My mom and I flew to Nassau that night. I held a plastic bag containing a sequined lavender dress. She carried a box containing a matching gaudy lavender hat. It was the outfit my grandmother would be buried in.
On the day after the funeral and the wake, my mom called the Bahamian embassy in Miami to file a missing person’s report. That’s when she found out that Johnny had never made it to the embassy.
When she returned from Nassau, she drove straight from LAX to knock on the door of the elderly woman Johnny cared for, hoping to find him there. The woman had received a phone call from him: “The immigration people have him. They have him locked up in Texas.”
En route to Miami, the Greyhound had hit one of the 71 traffic checkpoints lining the U.S.–Mexico border. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) inspectors had hauled Johnny off the bus, handcuffed him, and arrested him. (Under Janet Napolitano’s leadership as the Secretary of Homeland Security, ICE ramped up its searches of Greyhounds in 2011, the year that my uncle was detained.)
Sobbing, my mom called me at work with the news. I searched online and found the facility where she said Johnny was being held: the West Texas Detention Center in Sierra Blanca, Texas. We both supposed that after a few days, immigration officials would deport Johnny back to Nassau, the country where he was headed in the first place. After all, he didn’t have a criminal record, and he had enough money with him to pay for his flight back home. “Hopefully, they don’t keep him locked up there for too long,” my mom said.
Little did we know that ten percent of the people in immigration detention centers are there for more than a year, according to Aarti Kohli, an immigration policy expert at UC Berkeley. As time passed, we began to learn that the system is not only riddled with delays, but also allegedly rife with physical and sexual abuse.
Johnny was arrested on February 20, 2011. After a month, he called my mom and asked for help escaping confinement. She scoured the Yellow Pages in search of lawyers in Texas. Those she called gave her quotes ranging from $1,500 to $25,000. She chose the $1,500 lawyer, a woman named Marcela Ida Garcia, from a nonprofit called United Neighborhood Organization.
On April 28, with Garcia at his side, Johnny faced an immigration judge, Thomas Roepke, who granted him a voluntary departure order set for May 26. A deportation order would have banned Johnny from reentering the U.S. for at least ten years, but the voluntary departure order gave him the right to apply for a return visa. Finally, some good news, we thought.
After Johnny agreed to voluntarily depart at his own expense, he was transferred to another detention facility, the El Paso Processing Center, to await his day of passage.
That’s where he was on the night in early May when he called my mom, screaming hysterically, “They gonna lock me up! They gonna lock me up for good!” He said that the guards were threatening to detain him forever. My mom called the detention center the next morning and spoke to an employee identified as Officer Melendez. Denials followed. A guard told her that Johnny’s plane ticket to Nassau had arrived that week at the El Paso facility. He would be home in the Bahamas, the guard said, in a few days.
But my mom didn’t hear from Johnny for two weeks. She recalls that whenever she phoned to check on Johnny’s well-being, the guards to whom she spoke said the same thing: “He’s fine.” One guard even put her on hold while, he claimed, he personally went to check on Johnny. When he returned, he said something to the effect that “the detainee is in good mental and physical health.” Records of my mom’s cell phone calls to the center were routinely destroyed by her phone company before she realized that she would need them as evidence. But her landline phone records confirm calls to the facility on May 31.
In the meantime, no word from Johnny. May turned into June. Johnny missed his date to fly back to Nassau, which had been moved from May 26 to May 31. My mom reached out to Garcia, the lawyer who had obtained the court order for Johnny, but was told by her assistant, “Our case was finished when he got the order for May 26. What happens next is up to the Department of Homeland Security.”
In frustration at not hearing from Johnny, my mom told one guard in late May, “I’m going down there to check on my brother myself.” On June 4, she flew to Texas. She called me with the news: When she showed up at the El Paso Processing Center, she was informed that Johnny had been admitted to a mental health hospital, University Behavioral Health (UBH) of El Paso, on May 18. Ever since that date, while the authorities at the El Paso Processing Center had been telling her that he was fine, he had not even been there.
When my mom went to UBH to see Johnny, she found him looking like a zombie. He had lost so much weight that he was barely recognizable, and he didn’t know her at first—she had to keep reminding him of who she was. He told her that because he wasn’t eating or taking the medicine the hospital had prescribed, he had been put in isolation.
Doubled over in his chair with agony, he said that he was having severe pain in his lower chest area and ribs, along with difficulty breathing that on one occasion had caused him to pass out. When my mom lifted up his scrubs, she saw deep purple bruising covering the side of his ribs. Describing it to one of the hospital nurses, she was told that “his rib might be broken.”
Johnny now says that he doesn’t recall how he got that way. He just remembers waking up in pain one morning at the El Paso facility, barely able to walk or get out of bed, struggling to breathe. Once he got to the mental health hospital, he recalls, he slept standing up for almost a month.
On June 6, back in Los Angeles, my mom called the director’s office at the El Paso Processing Center, furious about her brother’s condition. On June 10, she called a supervisor at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in Washington D.C., which oversees ICE prison authorities, and filed a written complaint.
Uncertain that her allegations would be taken seriously by DHS, she filed another complaint on June 13, this time with the American Civil Liberties Union. She let them know that she had formally accused ICE, through mandated channels at DHS, of conditions leading to the “physical and mental injuries” that her brother had sustained at the El Paso Processing Center. She also asserted that officials there had “continuously lied” to her, telling her that Johnny was in good health and present at the facility between mid-May and June 4.
Based on what we’ve learned since Johnny’s incarceration, there is reason to suspect that her complaint to DHS was never processed. As for the subsequent complaint to the ACLU, we have not received a reply.
It appears that there have been many unresolved cases of physical and sexual assault in immigration detention centers. In 2011, Johnny and 429,246 other undocumented immigrants were detained, making it a record-breaking year for ICE. In October 2011, the ACLU and Frontline, a PBS public affairs documentary series, released a joint report titled “Lost in Detention.” The report found that most of the complaints that went through DHS’s Inspector General’s Office, the main entity responsible for investigating outside complaints, have never been investigated or resolved.
The yearlong investigation found that detainees (few of whom had the money to hire a lawyer) were being held in detention centers for exorbitant lengths of time—ten years in one case. Between 2007 and 2011, 170 complaints by detainees had been logged. One detainee in 2010 reported having been “sexually abused when Officer [name redacted] pulled his pants down and tugged on his genital area and made him say ‘uncle.’” Another detainee wrote that an officer had been “coming at night into his bed, intimidating him and posing nude.”
As a result of the documentary, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) launched its own investigation. On November 20, 2013, it released a scathing report stating that ICE field office workers responsible for overseeing immigration detention facilities were not reporting all detainee allegations of sexual and physical abuse to ICE headquarters. The GAO report lists other regulatory mishandlings and states that because of these issues, the frequency of assaults and the number of immigrants assaulted in detention centers are unknown. The “systemic or root causes of abuse” within the 250 immigration detention centers in the U.S., the report concludes, are not being identified, monitored, or resolved.
Finally, on July 1, 2011, immigration officials released Johnny from the El Paso Processing Center, to which he had been returned following his discharge from the psychiatric hospital. Nearly three months after the immigration judge had ordered it, he was allowed to move on to Nassau, where he now lives.
Obviously, something violent happened at the El Paso facility that led to Johnny’s transfer to the mental health hospital instead of the airport. “Maybe the guards did it. I don’t know,” he says. “But someone had to do that to me.” In any case, he tells me, he’s just trying to forget the whole thing. In fact, he can’t even recall boarding the Texas flight that sent him to Georgia before he landed in Nassau. At the time, he was heavily medicated on antidepressants prescribed in the mental health hospital—and he remained on antidepressants, which he had never taken before, for over a year afterward. He says that talking about what happened makes him feel depressed all over again, rekindling his sadness about missing his mother’s funeral. He visits her grave in Nassau often, he says.
My mom and I don’t question Johnny’s deportation. But why was he held so long, even after a judge ruled that he could voluntarily leave? What befell him in the El Paso Processing Center? And why did the guards claim that he was there and in good mental and physical condition, especially over the 18 days from May 18 through June 4, when he was actually in a mental health hospital recovering from some sort of incident?
Given the evidence that significant numbers of detainees have been abused in our deportation system, there needs to be more investigation and reform. In December 2012, the DHS promised to make policy changes, such as extending protections to detainees and providing new ways to report abuse. As of the time of publication, those changes have not been made. Our family has been left with so many questions and so few answers. We still wonder if we will ever hear back regarding our complaints.
The question remains, why do we and other American citizens allow our tax dollars to support a system that imprisons and evidently abuses vulnerable human beings, when all that is needed is to expedite their exit from our country? Like the other detainees, my uncle is not a U.S. citizen, but he still had a right to humane treatment while incarcerated. The pain of the injustices he suffered will stay with him, and our family, forever—and for the detainees still in custody, the nightmare continues.
Johnny’s name has been changed to protect his privacy.