H1N1 fears at Port Isabel Detention Center as Human Rights complaints continue

Homosexual detainee "removed" to Nigeria despite violently anti-gay culture.

Greg Harman

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Amnesty International has come and gone but concerns about a lack of due process and complaints of inadequate medical care continue among detainees at the Port Isabel Detention Center in Los Fresnos outside Brownsville.

This week, the appearance of “flu-like symptoms” that has a dozen detainees hospitalized and 54 under restricted movement at the immigration processing facility have added to the unease.

The original hunger strike began in late April with as many as 70 detainees refusing food, and grew to about 200, according to immigration-rights organizations.

To date, U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement have admitted only one case of “voluntary fasting” and say that are no confirmed cases of H1N1, also known as swine flu.

“All detention facilities maintain a plan to manage infectious or communicable diseases,” said Nina Pruneda, spokesperson for ICE in South Texas. “None of the 54 that are in that dormitory are exhibiting flu-like symptoms.”

Still, concerns about extended incarcerations, lack of access to legal counsel, poor medical care, and allegations of abuse by guards continue. Concerns that Amnesty International found compelling.

Amnesty told the Houston Press:

"It's very hard to find legal counsel," Sarnata Reynolds told Hair Balls. Reynolds, AI's police and campaign director for refugee and migrant rights, said the center's remote location makes it nearly impossible for the 650 current detainees to hire a lawyer. She was one of two representatives who toured the facility and interviewed detainees and officials Tuesday and Wednesday.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) describes Port Isabel as a "detention center for individuals who are waiting for their immigration status to be determined, or who are awaiting repatriation."

The key part is "waiting." Reynolds said she talked with detainees who have been locked up for over a year -- although most were previously held in centers in Pennsylvania and other parts of Texas. While the detainees have criminal convictions, Reynolds said, not all were hit with felonies.

Amnesty recently released some startling findings about immigration detention in the U.S. in a report, Jailed Without Justice: Immigration Detention in the United States, including the fact that since 1996 detentions have grown from 10,000 detainees nationwide to 30,000 this year.

“While ICE reported an average detention stay of 37 days in 2007, immigrants and asylum seekers may be detained for months or even years as they go through deportation procedures that will determine whether or not they are eligible to remain in the United States,” the report's summary states.

An earlier study found that of the detainees that are eventually granted asylum spend an average of 10 months locked up. Worst-case scenarios had immigrants locked up for as long as 3.5 years.

Southwest Workers' Union organizer Anayanse Garza said one detainee she interviewed has been in custody at Port Isabel for two years.

“It's supposed to be a temporarily holding facility, but because of lack of due process and all these bureaucratic mistakes that keep happening â?¦ this all affects the cases,” Garza said. “The law is working against you if you are in immigrant.”

Newly sensitized to the horrors of human trafficking, I found the AI report useful in its reminder that detainees “include asylum seekers, torture survivors, victims of human trafficking, longtime lawful permanent residents, and the parents of US citizen children.”

Then there is Bob-Nwachakwu, Heme Chima.

As a gay man with HIV, Heme Chima was terrified of being deported back to his home country of Nigeria, where homosexual acts can result in five years in prison.

After being picked up in February, Heme Chima was held at Port Isabel, where he was diagnosed HIV positive, though insists he was never provided any medication during his stay.

“I was deprived of food and religious rights when I wanted to fast and pray as a Christian,” he wrote in a statement provided to the Current.

He was returned to Nigeria late last month.

“Since my arrival I have suffered what I was running away from,” he wrote. “I have been chased by the police for kissing a guy in a club â?¦ I have a warrant now for practicing homosexuality. I cannot get a job or join the army bcos am `sik` HIV positive and am homosexual. I cannot open up my sexuality in my community because I could be stoned to death.”

Annayanse Garza of the Southwest Workers' Union wrote up her findings for IndyMedia after the initial hunger strike got underway.

On Wednesday April, 22, 2009, at least 70 detainees began to refuse food.

I visited the Port Isabel Detention Center after speaking with a close friend of one of the detainees, Rama Carty. Rama has been at the Port Isabel Detention Center since December.

At the PIDC, there are 4 pods in each unit. On Wednesday, April 22, 2009, 3 of the pods in the Bravo Unit began to refuse food and initiated the hunger strike. Rama Carty was one of those detainees.

After the hunger strike began, Field Director Michael Watkins then began to talk to detainees. Talks continued for 3 days in an attempt to talk detainees into giving up the hunger strike. During this time, 10 of the hunger strikers were separated to a different unit called the Charlie Unit by themselves as a divide and conquer strategy. Although Rama and possibly other detainees continue to also participate in the hunger strike, they were not placed with the other 10 detainees.

The snack machine was taken out of the Charlie Unit and officials claimed that this was to make sure they were not eating and necessary in order to monitor the condition of the detainees on the strike. However, during that same time period when press contacted the ICE about this their response was :“the hunger strike is ended and all persons are accepting their meal trays.” However, individuals continue the hunger strike.

According to Rama, detainees like himself want to expose the following:

  • Detainees on the Hunger Strike must be allowed visitation of sympathizers and press during the required hours to make a public statement of the true nature of their situation.
  • Detainees on the hunger strike hope to bring attention to the physical and verbal abuse that detainees are subjected to by the guards.
  • Detainees are not getting the required medical attention they need if they are ill or have medical complications.
  • Detainees face a situation in which there are grossly insufficient legal resources available to them.
  • Detainees have stated that they face violations to their due process rights, do not receive adequate medical attention, and have experienced physical and verbal abuse from ICE and ATSI officers.
  • Detainees encourage the community to support them in the hunger strike by taking actions that bring public attention to the reasons they initiated the hunger strike.

To date, ICE has only admitted one case of “voluntary fasting.”

Garza said she has spoken with two detainees that had been fasting for 10 days.

The most prominent protester to date, Rama Carty, was transferred recently to Louisiana en route to being “removed” (in ICE parlance) to Haiti, though some have suggested Carty is not even from Haiti.

"I went for 5 days without food as part of the Hunger Strike," continued Heme Chima. "Some people went for 7 or more. Adewale went for 10 days or more ... He was locked in the clinic without TV, radio, or access to recreational materials."

Pruneda would not comment whether or not there are any open ICE investigations into the detainee complaints.


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