Two Immigrants Who Followed the Path to Citizenship Tell Stories of Detention and Deportation
by Amy Goodman & Carolina Fulecio Hernandez

 family  immigration  personal-narrative

As mass immigrant rights demonstrations rock the country, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has been conducting widespread deportation raids and immigration roundups. We speak with two young immigrant women who tried to follow the path to citizenship and were subsequently jailed. One of them was deported and has been separated from her three year-old son. [includes rush transcript]

The issue of immigration has exploded into the national consciousness over the last month with millions of people taking part in marches, protests, rallies and even an economic boycott that took place this past Monday on May Day. That day was dubbed “A Day without Immigrants” and it is being called the largest day of protest in U.S. history with an estimated 1.5 million people participating. But amid the widespread mobilization that took place, newspapers throughout the country reported widespread fear of deportation raids and immigration roundups by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Rumors of impending raids came on the heels of the highly publicized raids of April 19th where more than 1200 undocumented workers from 26 different states were rounded up and detained. More raids followed - last week ICE announced the arrests of 106 undocumented immigrants throughout the Midwest and almost 200 arrests in Florida alone. In fact, undocumented immigrants are one of the largest growing populations being detained by the U.S government.

Today, we look at the issue of immigration detention with a number of guests. We will look at the treatment of immigrant detainees, the trend towards privatization of detention centers and the policies behind it all. But first we go to a video clip of a detainee who was held in a Virginia detention center. Her name is Carolina and she is 23 years old. Carolina entered the U.S without papers at the age 4. In January, Carolina was arrested while filing for legal status with her husband, who is a U.S. citizen. She was arrested was for ignoring a deportation order issued when she was only 12. Carolina’s father is a U.S citizen and she has no criminal record of any kind.

Carolina Fulecio Hernandez, immigrated from Guatamala to the United States at the age of four speaking at a Virginia detention center. Carolina was recently deported and she is now living in Guatemala City. Her son is still here in the US and will turn three this month.

Carolina Fulecio Hernandez, on the line from Guatemala City.

Debi Sanders, executive director of the Capital Area Immigrant Rights Coalition and a member of the Detention Watch Network.

Who also look at the case of Sharon Nyantekyi. She recently spent several days in a detention center in Elizabeth, New Jersey. She was taken into custody after she applied for a green card application and it was discovered that she had been brought to this country as a child under a fraudulent visa. Sharon is originally from Ghana.

Sharon Nyantekyi, immigrant from Ghana and Rutgers University student who was detained for 10 days in March. She is currently awaiting a deportation hearing scheduled for May 9.


AMY GOODMAN: We go to a Virginia detention center. A detainee who was held there, her name was Carolina, 23 years old. She entered the U.S. without papers at the age of four years old. In January, Carolina was arrested while filing for legal status with her husband, who is a U.S. citizen, arrested for what the government said was ignoring a deportation order when she was 12. Carolina’s father is a U.S. citizen. She has no criminal record. This is Carolina.

CAROLINA FULECIO HERNANDEZ: I went to school here, graduated here. I’ve made my whole life here. And—I’m sorry. After I graduated, I got married with my husband, who—we’ve dated since we were in high school. And a year later, I had my baby. And so, two years later, I filed a petition, I-130. When I got the letter for the interview, it said that the reason for the interview was for the petition that I made.

So I show up to the interview with my husband and my son and my dad. And they did the interview. They asked me a couple of questions, and then immigration, two guys came in. And then they took me to another room, and they pulled out my file, and everything showed up, that I had deportation nine years ago. Then they asked me if I went back to my country at all, and I said, “No”—if I ever went to a court with a judge or anything, and I told them, “No,” that I don’t remember, because I was little. I don’t remember ever going with a judge or anything.

And then, one of those guys said that they were going to ask somebody in there if—they were probably going to take me in custody, but they were going to ask somebody, because I have my baby. But he came back in, and he said they were going to take me in custody, because I had deportation and I broke the law, and all this stuff. And they took me in that day.

CAIR INTERVIEWER: How did you feel when they told you they were going to take you?

CAROLINA FULECIO HERNANDEZ: The whole world came down, to me. I felt like I was going to die. Still that I miss my son. I miss him so much. Every night I pray that I get out of here. I pray every night. I pray that I get out of here, because of my son, because my son needs me. He’s too little. He’s only two years old, and he needs me. Nobody can replace my love. Nobody.

AMY GOODMAN: Carolina Fulecio Hernandez, speaking from a detention center in Virginia. Soon after this video was made by the CAIR Coalition, the Capital Area Immigrants Rights Coalition, she was deported. She was deported to Guatemala City. Her son is still here in the United States—he’ll turn three this month—with her husband. Carolina now joins us on the phone from Guatemala, and we’re joined in studio in Washington, D.C. by Debi Sanders, executive director of CAIR, the Capital Area Immigrants Rights Coalition. We’ll start with Debi. How unusual is this case?

DEBI SANDERS: A few years ago, this case would have been very unusual. Unfortunately, what’s happening more and more is when people try to do what everyone thinks they should do, which is to do it right, to file the papers, that that’s actually when they come out of the shadows, when they apply, when they put themselves at risk.

Actually, Carolina wasn’t really coming out of those shadows, because she didn’t know that she had been ordered departed as a child or that she had even entered illegally as a four year old. She was, in fact, in high school, had volunteered at the police department. She was like a model student, a model citizen, doing the right thing, marrying her husband, having a child and then filing the papers for her interview.

What’s happened is there’s been so much pressure on the local offices to get up their numbers of detained individuals and get up their numbers of deported individuals, that more and more, the people we see in jail—five years ago we saw a hundred people held by the Washington immigration office, now we see more than 600. They’re going after people that have really minor violations, minor issues. Clearly Carolina was not a flight risk, was not a danger to anybody. She didn’t need to be arrested. She did not need to be deported.

AMY GOODMAN: Carolina, you’re in Guatemala City right now?


AMY GOODMAN: And have you seen your son?


AMY GOODMAN: Since when?


AMY GOODMAN: And you were arrested when you went in with your husband and child to apply for citizenship, do the route of—since you were married to an American citizen?

CAROLINA FULECIO HERNANDEZ: Yes, that’s right. That was January 19, 2006.

AMY GOODMAN: And they took you at that moment.

CAROLINA FULECIO HERNANDEZ: Yes, they took me that same day.

AMY GOODMAN: What day were you deported?

CAROLINA FULECIO HERNANDEZ: It was about two weeks ago.

AMY GOODMAN: And do you know people in Guatemala? You came here when you were four.

CAROLINA FULECIO HERNANDEZ: Well, no, I’m staying with my aunt. But no, I mean, I basically don’t know nobody here at all.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you have any hope of coming back?

CAROLINA FULECIO HERNANDEZ: I do, yes. I do, yes. I do have hope to go back, yes, over there.

AMY GOODMAN: Did they explain why they deported you? Did you understand the risk you were taking when you interacted with ICE, with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement?

CAROLINA FULECIO HERNANDEZ: No. No. They didn’t explain to me at all. They didn’t tell me why I was being deported or anything at all.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you go in with a lawyer?


AMY GOODMAN: Why did you decide? You were not in any trouble. You had lived here since you were four years old. You were married to an American citizen. Why did you bother going in?

CAROLINA FULECIO HERNANDEZ: Well, because, you know, I decided, you know, because I have a U.S. son. So I decided that I should, because, I mean, my son is American, and so I want to make my life there in the United States, you know, because I grew up there, and basically I’ve made my whole life there in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: And what were the conditions like in the detention center?

CAROLINA FULECIO HERNANDEZ: The conditions were very, very bad. I mean, the food was very awful. I mean, the food made me sick almost every single day. And I had to be with, you know, women that were very mean. Very, very mean. And then I had to see fights almost every single day. Almost every single day there were fights. And then the officers, they treated immigrants really, really bad. And then it was very, very awful being in jail. You know, basically I didn’t—I didn’t do anything to be arrested.

AMY GOODMAN: And what is the process you go through right now to try to come back?

CAROLINA FULECIO HERNANDEZ: Right now, we going—we’re starting everything again with the petition. That’s what my lawyer told me, that we’re starting everything again, first with the petition, I-130, to see, you know, if they approve it again, if immigration approves it again.

AMY GOODMAN: We are joined by another woman in the studio, who was also detained: Sharon Nyantekyi. She has recently spent a number of days in a detention center in Elizabeth, New Jersey, taken into custody after she applied for a green card application. It was discovered she had been brought to this country as a child on a false visa. Sharon originally is from Ghana. Welcome to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us what happened to you?

SHARON NYANTEKYI: Well, on March 9,—well, February 16, actually, my husband and I went to the I.N.S. building in Newark to adjust my status, because he’s an American citizen. Although I’ve been in this country since I was six years old, I didn’t actually find out that I was undocumented until sophomore year in high school, driver’s ed.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?

SHARON NYANTEKYI: I didn’t know I was undocumented at all. So, after I passed the driver’s ed examine in class, I asked my mom for the necessary paperwork to get my permit, and that’s when she informed me that I had no documentation.

AMY GOODMAN: Was your mother from Ghana?

SHARON NYANTEKYI: Yes. She’s from Ghana. So, well, years went by, and I got married. And I’ve been married for three-and-a-half years now. So, my husband and I went over to try to adjust my status. And we went to the interview. Everything went well, and they told us they would actually issue me the green card, but they would have to do like a criminal background check and all like that. And when the officer came back, he informed me that there was a deportation levied against me, and it had been filed in 1999, when I was 16 years old. And I didn’t know what was going on. And next thing I knew, they were putting handcuffs on me and sending me to Norfolk’s county jail. And I have no criminal record whatsoever.

AMY GOODMAN: And what happened in jail?


AMY GOODMAN: How long were you held?

SHARON NYANTEKYI: I was held in the jail for seven days. My treatment got so horrible in the jail that there were two officers there who were from Internal Affairs, and they were actually the ones to place a call to I.N.S. and get my transported from there to the detention center in Elizabeth. While I was in the jail, I was initially processed by male inmates. They—

AMY GOODMAN: You were processed by prisoners?

SHARON NYANTEKYI: Yes. They’re the ones who took my fingerprints. They are the ones who took my mug shots. At that point in time, I didn’t even know that they were inmates, because I’ve never been in trouble before. They were just men in green. But when they started making sexually explicit comments and gestures to me, that’s when I knew that these people have to be inmates.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you know for sure that they weren’t guards?

SHARON NYANTEKYI: Eventually, I found out when they put me into general population, and everybody in there was wearing the same thing as the inmates, and yeah. And then, after a while they were being ordered around.

AMY GOODMAN: So, they were making lewd comments to you?

SHARON NYANTEKYI: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. Every lewd and just—

AMY GOODMAN: Now, in the general population, you were together with the men?

SHARON NYANTEKYI: No, in the general population, I was with the women. Yeah, but initially when you go into the jail, it’s the males that process you.

AMY GOODMAN: So then they sent you to another jail?

SHARON NYANTEKYI: Well, yeah, after being there for seven days in general population. It was just horrendous. I was being harassed. It was just horrible. So, I got through to my attorney, Eric Darko, and my husband. He’s been going crazy, going to the courthouse every day, trying to get me moved out of there, because I’m a non-criminal, you know. So, from there, they took me to the Elizabeth Detention Center, where I spent 14 more days.

AMY GOODMAN: And what happened there?

SHARON NYANTEKYI: Well, there, I mean, I didn’t have to worry about criminals coming after me. I didn’t worry about, you know, my life being in danger. But there were a whole bunch of gross human rights violations there, as well.


SHARON NYANTEKYI: You name it. Lack of medical care. Lack of privacy. You have no walls around you when you shower. You’re to shower in front of 29 other people. The guards just belittle and just—every worst thing you can imagine, like every worst-case scenario.

AMY GOODMAN: Is it a private or a public jail?


AMY GOODMAN: Who ran it?

SHARON NYANTEKYI: C.C.A., Corrections Corporation of America.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to talk more about the privatization of the immigrant prisons and the overall immigrant detention center system in this country when we come back. We are talking in the wake of these mass immigrant protests.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined in our Firehouse studio by Sharon Nyantekyi. Sharon recently spent a number of days in a detention center run by Corrections Corporation of America in Elizabeth, New Jersey, taken into custody after applying for a green card, married to an American citizen. We are also joined in the studio by Judy Greene, an analyst with Justice Strategies, and by Mark Dow, who is the author of the book, American Gulag: Inside U.S. Immigration Prisons. We welcome you to Democracy Now! Judith Greene, C.C.A. and immigrant detention—first, the overall prison system, and then, the specific subset of immigration prisons.

JUDY GREENE: Well, C.C.A. is the largest private prison corporation in the world and in the United States. They have some 60,000 prison beds that they manage. They house prisoners from the federal prison system, from state prison systems, and they have an increasing share of contracts to house immigrants in their detention centers. The company actually started—the very first private prison in the world was an immigrant detention center in Houston, Texas: the Houston Immigrant Processing Center, which C.C.A. still operates. And Texas continues to be the ground zero of the immigrant detention industry.

AMY GOODMAN: And how has it grown? And is it increasing, the privatization of U.S. prisons?

JUDY GREENE: In the last decade, with increased emphasis on immigrant enforcement, the immigrant detention system, the little industry, has tripled in size to a capacity now of some 22,000 beds. Some of these beds are private. Some of these beds are operated by ICE. Some of these beds are in jails, contracted similar to the jail that Sharon was held in. But the private sector is gobbling up an increasing share of these resources. Now, since 9/11, there’s been an increased blurring of the line between immigrant enforcement and law enforcement. And now, with the hyper-politicized immigration reform debate, we’re seeing bills that would completely erase that line.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the significance of this. I mean, you have the situation of Sharon, you have the situation of Carolina. No criminal charges had been brought against them. What do you mean by the blurring?

JUDY GREENE: Well, pressure is increasing on state and local law enforcement to enforce immigration laws, and some states—Florida, Alabama, Arkansas—have already made agreements with the federal government, so that state and local police are trained to look for undocumented immigrants and ostensibly to bring them into the immigrant detention industry or facilities for purposes of removal.

What we’re seeing in Alabama, for example, immigrants are being stopped at checkpoints or stopped for making illegal left turns in their cars or even jaywalking. Local police then inspect whatever documents they may have, and if those documents appear to be false, they’re being taken into custody, charged with felony fraud, held in jail with no bail, and processed in our criminal courts, which then, of course, if they’re convicted and they go to prison, at the end of that, they get processed into the detention system for removal.

AMY GOODMAN: You could have a woman who calls the police in a domestic violence situation, and the police come and then arrest her?

JUDY GREENE: Absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: Mark Dow, you’ve written this book, American Gulag: Inside U.S. Immigration Prisons. Can you talk about the difference between immigration prisons and other prisons? Is there a difference?

MARK DOW: Well, there’s a difference, in name, and that’s an important question. The reason I use the phrase “immigration prisons” is because we talk a lot about detention. We’re hearing a lot about detention. But when people are detained, they are incarcerated. They are prisoners. They’re stripped of their clothing. They’re given inmate uniforms. It’s not that they’re treated like prisoners, they are prisoners. So even though this is administrative, quote-unquote, “detention,” it has nothing to do with serving time for a sentence. These people are jailed as prisoners, and they are in jails, they are in prisons, and sometimes in what are called detention centers or processing centers, but as a warden once told me, these are all the same thing.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about some of these detention centers, from Krome in Miami, Dade County, to others?

MARK DOW: Well, the main thing to realize about them is that it’s a whole network of detention centers and prisons around the country, so wherever someone is hearing this broadcast right now, there’s most likely a prison or jail or detention center with non-citizens being held there pretty close to where they are. It’s a decentralized system.

Part of the problem for these immigration prisoners, like some of the ones that have been talking to you today, is that they are isolated from families. They’re isolated from legal help. They are often put in rural areas, where there simply aren’t lawyers in the area who can help them. And none of that is an accident. In fact, often if immigration prisoners are in a big city, where they might have legal help or family support, the immigration agency, ICE, will often move them to isolated rural areas to make sure that they’re more cut off and more isolated. So the immigration service actively works to cut them off from the little due process that’s available to them.

AMY GOODMAN: The number of people who are immigrants, who are now detained?

MARK DOW: Something like 22,000 right now. And the important thing to remember about that number is that a lot of people think that immigration detention appeared after September 11th, and people think that, ‘Okay, well, even if there are some problems, it was September 11th, so we had to detain people.’ But on September 10, 2001, there were already some 20,000 to 22,000 immigration detainees around the country.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re saying there aren’t more.

MARK DOW: Well, we don’t know the exact numbers, but—and there’s a lot of turnover. But what I’m saying is that this immigration detention system didn’t just start recently because of a national emergency. It’s been in place since the Reagan era in its current form, although it’s expanding exponentially, particularly since the 1996 anti-immigrant laws.

AMY GOODMAN: With the legislation that’s being debated right now in Congress, what applies to the jails?

MARK DOW: Well, it’s not clear what the increase in bed space will be yet, but one of the provisions that’s being talked about could increase the number of detention beds by the tens of thousands. 20,000, possibly. So we’re talking about additional expansion, renting more beds in local jails, increased opportunities for the private prison companies that Judy is talking about.

AMY GOODMAN: And the difference in access that immigrants have to lawyers in immigrant jails versus regular prisoners?

MARK DOW: So-called administrative detainees, people in immigration detention, do not have a right to counsel. This is very important to realize, because they’re subject to an adversarial system. They go into a courtroom where there’s an immigration judge, where there’s a prosecutor who works for the immigration service. But those immigration prisoners do not have the right to counsel.

Now, Michael Chertoff, Secretary Chertoff, during his confirmation hearings, seemed to imply that in retrospect, the post-September 11th detainees should have had lawyers. Now, I think he basically said that to escape from some questioning from the congressmen, but it’s something that he should be held to, and I think the issue of counsel for any detained immigrant is something that should be on the table. And frankly, it would solve one of the problems that immigration complains about, which is that if you release people from detention, that they tend to abscond, because some statistics seem to show that if an immigrant who has to fight his or her case has a lawyer, then they’re more likely to show up for any proceeding. So, giving them a lawyer will make the system work better all around.

AMY GOODMAN: Sharon, did you have access to a lawyer?

SHARON NYANTEKYI: Yes, I did have a lawyer at the time.

AMY GOODMAN: And how did you get out?

SHARON NYANTEKYI: Well, the lawyer, along with Rutgers University and my husband, had all been petitioning the judge and writing letters. The provost even wrote letters, all my professors wrote letters to the judge, you know, explaining my situation, and he decided to reopen my case. So that means I got out on bail, and I go before the judge again on May 9.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn back to Debi Sanders of CAIR, the Capital Area Immigration group. And ask you in Washington, if you go encourage people to go to ICE, to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement now, given the situation of young women like Carolina and what’s happened to her.

DEBI SANDERS: If we are representing somebody initially, we do research on what their case is and what their situation is. And then we would want to accompany them and make sure all their papers were in order. Unfortunately, Carolina went alone. And then was arrested alone. And now, we obviously, once people knew her story, two fabulous law firms are representing her. And we hope to bring her back through processing. But that can take many, many months because of those delays. But I think what’s really important on the show this morning, we’ve heard from so many mothers and wives, to show that people like Carolina obviously she’s not a security risk. She doesn’t have anything to do with national security. Were she to have been released, to be here during her hearing, she clearly wasn’t a flight risk. She has a husband, she has a child. This is exactly the kind of person that would stay here during her hearing. And to follow up on the Washington immigration office, for example, holds the majority of the people that they arrest in two jails. One is 150 miles from D.C. And the other is 206 miles from D.C. making it hard to get lawyers and family to help them.

AMY GOODMAN: I should say we invited on ICE, the immigration customs enforcement and they said they wouldn’t come on. Last month, following the massive raids, the largest enforcement operation in U.S. history, D.H.S. Secretary Michael Chertoff announced a second component of the secure border initiative called the interior enforcement strategy. Mark Dow, can you explain what that is?

MARK DOW: Well, in general, the Interior Enforcement Strategy is bureaucratic talk for cracking down on alleged illegal immigrants who are in the interior, meaning farther away from the borders. So, it’s stepped-up raids. It’s trying to round up what immigration likes to call “fugitives,” because it’s an evil-sounding word, but could range from any kind of bureaucratic slip-up in paperwork to someone who really doesn’t have a case. So, it also involves—we were talking before about the intersection of immigration detention and the jails. The other part of the Interior Enforcement Strategy involves looking for non-citizens who are serving sentences so that their removal, their deportation, can be expedited.

AMY GOODMAN: And then, Debi, you have people like Hannah, who is a woman who stole a t-shirt. They serve time, and then they’re held indefinitely. Can you explain why? And we just have a few minutes.

DEBI SANDERS: Right. What happened—Hannah was a lady, she was a cook in a local restaurant. She had a green card for 25 years. She, twelve years ago, stole one shirt from a department store. The criminal judge, of course, gave her no criminal time, merely community service. But now, because there’s no statute of limitation, then any-level crime—more and more, minor crimes can make you deportable, even if you have a green card. She is now in deportation proceedings, in detention. Again, someone not a danger, not a flight risk. So this is the kind of people that the Homeland Security is arresting.

Before their numbers were smaller; they were arresting people who truly had more serious issues, who might have been flight risks, who might have had issues that made them a danger to our community. But, more and more, we see the numbers going up, and because the numbers are going up, the time in detention is also going up, because it used to take a few weeks to be deported, now it’s taking months and months. Even this supreme court has said that ICE can only hold people in jail for six months before they have to either deport them or release them. More and more, we see ICE going over even that six-month deadline set up by our current supreme court.

AMY GOODMAN: We only have a few seconds, and I wanted to end with Carolina Hernandez. Your last words from Guatemala City, where you’ve been deported to?

CAROLINA FULECIO HERNANDEZ: Well, all I can say, you know, that - I just, you know—I just want people to help me to get back over there, because I want to be with my family again, and I really miss my son, and I haven’t seen my son for almost four months.

AMY GOODMAN: Carolina, I want to thank you for being with us. We will continue to follow your case. Carolina Hernandez, deported to Guatemala. She came here when she was four years old. Her son is about to turn three.

I also want to thank Sharon Nyantekyi for joining us, who is now out of the Elizabeth Detention Center; Judy Greene; Mark Dow, author of American Gulag: Inside U.S. Immigration Prisons; and Debi Sanders.