After being tortured in their home country, two men fled to the United States and were detained when they arrived, seeking refuge. An immigration official denied them release on the ground that Somalian detainees "present a paradigm of deceit."

This would be a highly suspect, not to mention inscrutable, basis on which to deny release to anyone. In these cases, however, it was simply ludicrous as the men were Ethiopian - not Somalian. No judicial review was available. 

And for now, it's staying that way.

The two Ethiopians were part of the plaintiff class in Jennings v. Rodriguez, a case in which the U.S. Supreme Court recently read the immigration statutes to authorize such arbitrary detention of thousands of immigrants - without without hearings on whether they pose a risk of flight or a danger to the community - while the courts decide whether they will be deported, a process that can take years.

Our country should not be a place where we lock people up for no particular reason, indeed without even asking whether there are particular reasons. After holding that our statutes permit this sort of thing, the Supreme Court punted on whether the Constitution prohibits prolonged, untested detention and sent the issue back to the lower courts. 

Three weeks before the Jennings decision, I joined Human Rights First on a tour of the Elizabeth Immigration Detention Center in New Jersey. The tour began, as these things do, with a meeting with an ICE representative and the warden, who works for CoreCivic, formerly Corrections Corporation of America, the largest private prison contractor in the country. "We are all focused on treating people like detainees, not prisoners," they told us. "These people aren't criminals."

Given what was on display at the detention center, one could be forgiven for finding it difficult to tell the difference.

There are no detainees with serious criminal histories at the facility, but those with low-level criminal histories wear bright orange scrubs. Detainees without criminal records wear dark blue scrubs. They all sleep and eat in dormitories, with bunks, showers, and toilets separated by hip-high cinder block dividers.  Pretty much everything is made of cinderblock, including the "outside" recreation yard, a small cement rectangle surrounded entirely by cinder block walls with roof grates to the outside. This is the only "outside" there is, and detainees are escorted by guards wherever they go.

When the tour ended, we gathered in a large visiting room to interview detainees who had agreed to talk to us. I met an older man who is married to an American and has lived in the United States as a green card holder for more than 20 years. A little over a year ago, he was hit by a drunk driver on the New Jersey Turnpike and sustained serious injuries to his back and leg. He had no health insurance in the U.S., so he flew back to his native country, in a wheelchair, and checked into a hospital and rehabilitation center there.

Over several months, he progressed from a wheelchair to a walker to a cane. Then he flew home - and was detained when he landed at JFK on the ground that he had "abandoned" his green card by staying out of the country for more than six months. He's been in detention ever since.

The center won't let him have his back brace, presumably because it has metal parts. Instead, the clinic put him on muscle relaxers three times a day. The drugs make him tired and loopy and he's still in pain. "Why don't they let me go home to my wife?" he asked. 

I also met a young woman who could not tell me what made her leave her country because she could not talk about it without crying, and she did not want to cry in front of so many others. She had passed a "credible fear" interview, meaning that an asylum officer had found a "significant possibility" that she could prove that she had been persecuted or tortured in her home country on account of her race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. She has been in detention for six months. "If they let me out," she said, "I will show up for my asylum hearing. Of course, I will. I cannot go back. I have nowhere safe to be but here."

On a tour of another facility, a colleague of mine met a woman who was picked up at JFK when she returned from a funeral in her country of origin. Her green card was flagged because of a misdemeanor shoplifting conviction from when she was a teenager - nearly two decades ago. She's been in detention for five months, and she has not seen her three young daughters, who are all U.S. citizens. The guards told her that only the legal guardian can bring the girls to visit, and she is the legal guardian, so no visits.  "I have to see my children," she said. "Please get them to let me out."

ICE detains between 31,000 and 41,000 immigrants each day. It is looking for contractors to open five additional facilities so that it can increase that number to 51,000. Because the immense expenditure must appear to be justified ($2.7 billion in the 2018 budget), every additional bed will be filled. 

If the detainees we met are any example, the people caught in the dragnet will include many for whom detention is wholly unnecessary - and therefore nothing but cruel. They come, or come back, believing that America means home, safety, freedom. Even after months of meaningless lockup, many hold onto that view. Eventually, however, they begin to lose hope. "I am not really alive in here," the older, injured man said. "Maybe if I agree to give up my wife and my children and my life here, they will let me out.  Maybe it is better to lose everything than to stay in here."

It violates our international treaty obligations to detain immigrants for the purpose of wearing them down until they agree to leave. It is unconstitutional to lock people up awaiting even a criminal trial (which a deportation hearing is not) unless there is a good reason. Most of all, it is a betrayal of our values to do what we're doing to immigrants.

A collective, noisy rejection of arbitrary detention may be the only way to resist a vindictive president, unseat a paralyzed Congress, awaken the conscience of the courts, and hold to account the private corporations and county jails that contract with ICE to incarcerate immigrants. The message is simple and should be uncontroversial: stop locking people up for no reason.

This story first appeared in The Star-Ledger on May 6, 2018.

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