Courageous investigators are revealing flaws in the immigration system that are often hidden from the public. Today, I’m honored to bring you an interview with Amy Bracken, Immigration Journalism Fellow with the French-American Foundation. LIRS Media Relations Specialist Clarissa Perkins carried out the following interview by email.
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Clarissa Perkins (CP): What personal experiences led you to become interested in migration and confinement?
Amy Bracken (AB): I became interested in immigrant detention from the other side of the border. In 2004, I reported from Haiti on the case of Joseph Dantica. He’s the 81-year-old pastor who fled gang violence in his Port-au-Prince neighborhood, flew to Miami with a valid tourist visa, and was placed in detention. His health quickly deteriorated, and Immigration refused to allow his family to even speak with him before he died in their custody. I then read about David Joseph, the young Haitian asylum-seeker who arrived in Miami by boat and was held in detention there for a year before a judge ordered his release. The judge’s order was overruled by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, who said that Joseph should stay behind bars to send a message to other Haitian would-be boat migrants. I wanted to know if these cases were outliers or if our immigration system routinely criminalizes those fleeing poverty and persecution at home. Now I think both are the case. There have been improvements since the days of Dantica and Joseph, but now asylum-seekers are regularly detained for several months, before – and often well after – they are determined to have a credible fear of persecution or torture if return to their country.
CP: You recently wrote an article entitled, “Abuse at the Border? Immigrants and Legal Groups Allege Harsh Treatment.” While covering this subject, what were you most surprised to learn?
AB: I was surprised to hear about people being held for days or weeks in cells with no beds, mats, blankets, sweaters, anything, but I was even more surprised to hear authorities’ reactions to these accounts. I was sure they would be embarrassed. I thought they would deny or evade or vow that reform was on its way. Instead, I was told, “It is what it is.” There are certain standards Immigration is supposed to follow. In response to a Freedom of Information Act claim, the government made public its Hold Rooms and Short Term Custody Policy. However, some key parts are redacted, such as the maximum length of time someone should be held and the maximum number of people to be held at one station at a time. Not redacted are mandates that efforts be made to give detainees bedding, showers, and telephone access. It seems these are simply being ignored.
CP: In general, how did you find the Border Patrol treats migrants?
AB: Experiences vary. Some migrants say agents treated them respectfully and warmly, that they had rescued them from the desert and only held them for a few hours. But others describe their time in Border Patrol custody as extremely traumatic. Some migrants claim that agents intimidated them when they hesitated to sign certain documents or even mocked them when they expressed a fear of returning to their countries. I’m told that working for Border Patrol is a good job in many towns with little other opportunity, so it attracts all kinds of young men and women, many of them first- or second-generation Americans. That said, agents follow protocol, and compassionate as the individuals may be, their job is not to look out for the comfort of the people they are holding. The length of stay is a serious problem. It is one thing to have your medicine and sweater taken away and to be subjected to a freezing cold room, bright lights, and nothing to sit or lie on for a few hours. It is an entirely different story to be left in that exact situation for several days. Add to that things like eating the same icy sandwich for every meal and never taking a shower. Border Patrol seems to be in denial of the fact that they are holding people at length, and I’m not aware of any effort to adapt to that fact. At the same time, many of the people in Border Patrol custody have already been processed, so it is the responsibility of other Department of Homeland Security agencies to move them out of those cells more quickly.
CP: In the article, you recount a conversation with a Border Patrol spokesman. What was his stance on his work? Was he receptive to the idea that America’s immigration system should be updated?
AB: That spokesman, Enrique Mendiola, has been with Border Patrol for more than 20 years. He seems to take pride in what he does – enforcing the law and, in many cases, saving lives. However, he also said his heart breaks for some of those he intercepts – people who sold everything they had to pay for a long and difficult journey they hoped would lead to a better life. He insists that he and his fellow agents treat the migrants they capture with compassion. I had trouble reconciling this with his stance on Border Patrol holding cell conditions. He didn’t seem to think they need to be improved. Rather, he said, immigrants entering the United States illegally need to face the consequences. As far as reform, he is happy to see further increase in the number of Border Patrol agents and stations in his sector.
CP: While covering this issue, how did you see Americans come out to support detainees and others in Border Patrol custody?
AB: I was first made aware of what was happening in Texas by Americans for Immigrant Justice (AI Justice), a legal advocacy group in Miami. They conduct know-your-rights sessions at the Broward Transitional Center (BTC). In recent months, many Central American asylum-seekers who came across the Rio Grande have been held by Border Patrol and then transferred to BTC, among other detention facilities. AI Justice has filed federal tort claims on behalf of eight of those immigrants. Meanwhile, they are putting together a formal survey of detainees’ experiences in Border Patrol custody. In Texas, I spoke with attorneys at RAICES and American Gateways, two groups that also work with immigrants who have been transferred from Border Patrol custody to longer-term detention. They too are gathering information and speaking with journalists to raise awareness about what is happening on the border. However, all of these attorneys are coming into contact with migrants after their time in Border Patrol custody. While in Border Patrol custody, migrants are forced to go through interviews and sign documents determining their fate without legal consultation.