Rev. Billy Takes on Immigrant Detention Centers

05/05/2009 12:53 PM |

He was then taken from Bergen County to Alabama by bus, in which he and other prisoners were shackled to one another and to the seats, which were made of metal and so close together that even someone shorter than five feet could hardly fit, Ragbir says.

The brand-new facility in Alabama, where he spent roughly a year, lacked medical facilities and proper food, he says. It also experienced a cicada plague. “You’re walking on cicadas, you didn’t see any concrete,” he says. “And they got into the ventilation system — they got everywhere — where they died. And they smelled.”

There was one incident at the Alabama facility when a guard beat an inmate; after his fellow prisoners asked to speak to the warden about it, they were pepper-sprayed, according to Rabir. “They bombed us with pepper spray, in the dormitory. They locked us in. They turned the air off, they turned the water off.” Ragbir says the standoff ended after he contacted his embassy, which contacted the prison. “But when they stopped, they didn’t just let us walk out. They threw us on the floor.” It was already difficult to breathe from the pepper spray, he says, and now with his face against concrete it was nearly impossible. “They handcuffed us, to our backs, and dragged us by our necks from the dormitory into the rec yard. All of us.” Ragbir almost chokes up. Savitri and several chorines cry. “I could go on and on,” he says, but instead he hands the box-mic back to Billy, who embraces him. All for a contested fraud conviction.

“We’re going to break you out of here, with Lady Liberty, the U.S. Constitution,” Billy shouts at the building as the choir resumes its song. “I’m so sorry this happened.”

An Endless Cycle of Jail and Deportation

Critics object not only to the conditions in which immigrants are held but also to the fact that people are imprisoned for immigration violations at all; as they see it, incarceration is not a solution to a social problem. Homeland Security, Gottlieb says, sees detainment as a deterrent for others looking to come to the U.S. illegally; she disagrees, arguing that people will continue to come to the U.S. based on their needs, regardless of the risk.

The alternative to this endless cycle of jail and deportation, she says, is fairer immigration laws that provide more access to legal status. As of now, roughly 800,000 immigrants are allowed into the country annually, according to the American Immigration Lawyers Association. More than half are relatives or spouses of citizens; some are skilled laborers or asylum seekers; and the remaining few come through the lottery system, which provides visas to nationals from countries the U.S. deems under-represented in the population. Those who do not fit into these categories have little recourse to legal status. About half a million people without legal documentation came to the U.S. every year during the last three years, according to estimates by the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan research group — down from 800,000 per in the preceding four years. An estimated 10 to 20 million Americans are undocumented immigrants. In fiscal year 2007, I.C.E. brought over 350,000 cases before immigration courts.

2 Comment

  • Henry,
    Thanks for this moving story on the injustce being perpetrated on immigrants. Rev Billy is a facinating character, and you’ve captured his essence.As Slade Cleaves aptly sang, “all of us are immigrants”
    Gary Johnson

  • This story really touched my heart..I guess there are good hearted people like Rev Billy who feel sympathy for illegal immigrants..not too many American do. They don’t understand all the hardships that they as well as their families go through. My sister’s boyfriend is being transfered to the Varick st. Facility after 9 months of awaiting in jail for his criminal case to be dismissed..thankfully it finally did. I wish there were something I can do to change all this disgusting unjust system towards illegal immigrants…people don’t know the humiliation my sisters boyfriend went through all these nine months…all the suffering his family has gone through…and now we continue to pray that he will hopefully not be deported ..my heart goes out to him as well as to all these innocent detainees to stay strong enough to face this unjust system that needs to be changed!!
    Vanessa