header icons


Juan José, a Latin American teenage immigrant being held in the INS Detention Center in Houston, wept as he told his story.

For all of his life, he had fulfilled the promise he made to his mother of saying three Hail Mary’s each night for purity, only to lose his virginity to some 49-year-old criminal also at the detention center.

The population in detention is made up of criminals and non-criminals, those in detention because of the sin of trying to seek a better life along with a minority of those who have committed crimes.

Jails and prisons throughout the country are filled with immigrants and refugees.

Manuel lives at Casa Juan Diego. His son, eighteen years of age, has been at the county jail in Angleton for months. We hope he won’t be there permanently. His crime: being born on the wrong side of the river.

Many immigrants linger in jail without legal representation. There is simply no one to represent them, or if lawyers are available, it is very difficult , if not impossible, to communicate with them.

A new report from the Human Rights Watch (September 1998) called Locked Away: Immigration Detainees in Jails in the United States, documents the magnitude of the problem. In one case, Emanuel Obajuluwa, an unrepresented Nigerian asylum seeker detained in Dallas County Jail, told Human Rights Watch that none of the legal assistance organizations on the list the INS had provided to him would accept his collect telephone calls, so the only way he could communicate with the organizations in order to find a lawyer was by writing a letter. But, he stated, he did not have any envelopes and stamps to write a letter since the jail would only provide two sheets of paper and one envelope once or twice a month. In early February 1998, Human Rights Watch sent Oabjuluwa a package marked as “legal mail” containing copies of Human Rights Watch reports on Nigeria and blank writing paper and white envelopes. In a letter dated February 22, Obajuluwa sent Human Rights Watch an original receipt (no photocopiers were available) that said, “The above correspondence has been denied you access while incarcerated in the Dallas County Jail and in accordance with the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department rules regarding inmate correspondence.” Although the human rights reports were given to Obajuluwa, the writing paper and envelopes he needed to write letters in search of a lawyer were confiscated by the jail.

Frequent transfers to other jails also seriously impede detainees’ and attorneys’ efforts to maintain contact. Attorneys are not notified of transfers. For example, Abadllah Ali Mohammed, a Somali asylum seeker, found free legal counsel after seventeen months of detention in INS’s Krome facility in Miami only to be transferred to Manatee County Jail in Bradenton, Florida, more than eight hour’s drive away. Mohammed called Human Rights Watch collect because the telephones at Manatee County Jail would not allow him to make a toll-free call to his attorney, who he feared did not know that he had been transferred

In Louisiana, lawyers and law students representing immigrants in local parish jails housing INS detainees have encountered many difficulties obtaining access to detainees. Attorney Carol Kolnichak was refused entrance to the Orleans Parish Prison in November 1996 when she attempted to visit her client along with representatives of Amnesty International. Later that day, when Ms. Kolnichak returned to interview her client alone, she was flatly refused.

Many difficult situations come to the attention of Casa Juan Diego as a result of our 1996 law which made it possible to deport permanent residents for a variety of crimes, both misdemeanors and felonies. People who have lived in the United States for 20, 30, 40 or more years and who have a number of traffic tickets which they have been unable to pay are being deported. The law states that two crimes of moral turpitude mandate deportation. Unfortunately, it is left to the INS to determine the definition of moral turpitude. One of the crimes may be shoplifting, when a newly arrived immigrant who has not eaten for three days steals a loaf of bread. Before the full implementation of this law was set to take place, on October 9, 1998, all of the INS detention centers and contracted jails were full.

One legal resident in Houston who had been in the United States most of his life and led an exemplary life is now in deportation proceedings for a crime of theft he committed at age 17 and for which he has already paid his debt to society. Although he has been a respectable resident for 43 years, he is no longer allowed to live in this country. He no longer knows anyone in his home country and has no way to make a living there.

A person who has been deported and returns to the United States may be sent to federal prison for ten years. This person will spend many more years in jail than he or she did for the original crime (which may have been a month).

Money Making

Private companies are springing up that are running jails and prisons-many of them filled with immigrants.

All women immigrants arrested in the Houston area are sent to the Liberty County Jail, where because of distance it is very difficult for them to obtain representation. Many of the female detainees have children at home. The Liberty County Jail (Texas) a for-profit enterprise run by the Corrections Corporation of America, receives $52.50 a day for each INS detainee (but charges only $25 to house each county inmate). Americas Watch cites the Liberty County Jail as one that treats immigrant detainees in an inhuman fashion (p. 49).

Without legal representation immigrant detainees in these facilities may linger for months.

Juan José, of the story at the beginning, cried out, “I came here to help my family and have a better life. If they won’t let me stay here, why won’t they let me go home?”

Houston Catholic Worker, November 1998, Vol. XVIII, No. 6.