“Deport me or set me free!” is Patua Wopea’s plea after seven years spent caught in the trap that is America’s immigration detention system.
The 27-year-old Brooklyn Park man knows what he would face if he were forced to return to Liberia: rampant violence and virtually hopeless job prospects.
But here in the United States, he is snared in a system that top immigration enforcement officials acknowledge is flawed. The Obama administration says it must be reformed, but there’s no certainty when that will happen.
Meanwhile, immigration authorities have shuttled Wopea from lockup to lockup. He was set to be deported in June. But that fell through, for reasons that aren’t clear to him, his family and attorneys who have tried to help him.
Now Wopea sits in a cell in North Dakota. He has no idea when, if ever, he could be free in this country or anywhere else.
“We are worse than animals in here,” Wopea said in a telephone interview Tuesday from the Grand Forks County jail. “We have no rights.”
Wopea is among some 400,000 immigrants who are incarcerated nationwide each year under allegations of immigration violations.
As immigration enforcement tightened during this decade, the system swelled into a patchwork of privately run prisons, federal centers and hundreds of county jails that never were intended for long-term lockups.
The 200 to 300 immigrants who are in detention on any given day in Minnesota are held in jails in Sherburne, Carver, Ramsey, Nobles and Freeborn counties, said the Bloomington office of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Recent lawsuits and news reports have highlighted multiple problems in the system:
• Reports of inadequate health care have prompted investigations into detainee deaths in Minnesota and other states.
• Twenty-six children between the ages of 1 and 17 were released from the T. Don Hutto detention center in Texas in 2007 after lawsuits claimed they had been deprived of education, recreation, medical care and privacy.
• Detainees in Basile, Louisiana, staged hunger strikes last month — claiming, among other complaints, that their cells were infested with rats and insects.
The Obama administration said this month that it will overhaul the system. The rapid rise in detentions has “presented significant challenges to a system that was not fundamentally designed to address ICE’s specific detention needs,” said John Morton, assistant secretary for ICE.
Four bills recently introduced in Congress add to the reform momentum. Minnesota Democrats Keith Ellison and Betty McCollum are co-sponsors of one U.S. House bill that would strengthen regulations for treatment of detainees.
Still, it’s not clear when detainees will see meaningful change. Major changes likely would come as part of broader immigration legislation which has been stalled in Congress.
‘A real big mistake’
Patua Wopea’s case provides a window into the troubled system. Keep in mind as you follow it that no one in Washington advocates releasing immigrants who should be deported under current law. Instead, they want to see a more open system with humane and fair treatment of those who are caught in it.
Further, Wopea is neither the most sympathetic nor the least sympathetic detainee. Most of them have committed no crimes. Some are hardened criminals.
Wopea, on the other hand, stood before a Hennepin County judge on Oct. 9, 2001, and said “I made a real big mistake.”
Wopea was pleading guilty for his role in a robbery where he took $30 when he was 19 years old. He and two other youths barged into the Extended Stay Hotel in Brooklyn Center. One (Wopea knew him only as “Dee.”) brandished a gun and grabbed a cash box. Court documents say that Wopea pulled a cord from the hotel lobby’s phone, picked up change that Dee had dropped and fled.
He had other brushes with the law. Court records say that police found marijuana in a car where he was a passenger. He also fled police after running a stop sign in North Minneapolis.
After the robbery, Hennepin County Judge Lloyd Zimmerman departed downward from state guidelines in sentencing Wopea. The judge noted that Wopea had cooperated with police and had no history of serious crimes.
Torture and separation
Court records also note that Wopea has a supportive family.
The father, Miamen Wopea, was working as an English teacher when Liberia’s civil war erupted in 1989. Government soldiers arrested him, beat him and forced him to sit on the blade of a knife. He was imprisoned and sentenced to death.
Rescue came from the United States where Miamen had been awarded a scholarship. The U.S. Embassy negotiated his release and escorted him to a plane.
But Miamen’s sons — Patua, who was 4, and his brothers, ages 6 and 9 — were trapped with a nanny in Liberia. After soldiers burned their house, the boys joined a human river of Liberians walking out of the country.
Tales of the hardship everyone endured on that grim march have become epic. The Wopea boys hid among dead bodies to save themselves from roving bands of gunmen. They escaped Liberia alive, and joined their father in Philadelphia. But nightmares and flashbacks followed them for years.
When the family moved to Minnesota, Miamen resumed his education career — in jobs that included helping Twin Cities families with immigration problems. Now Miamen said it’s “crazy” to find himself deep in his own such problems.
“I have dedicated my whole life to helping young people, but I cannot help my own son get out from the mistake that he made,” Miamen said.
Paper trail ends
Back in 2002, the judge stayed execution of Patua Wopea’s 48-month sentence. Instead, he was to serve a year in the county workhouse with releases to work and go to school. Once out, he would be on probation for three years.
Court records show that Wopea completed his sentence and was discharged from probation in early 2005.
Effectively, though, he would serve more time than the original 48-month sentence. Seven years later, he is in custody with no release in sight.
Wopea had been in the United States on a permanent resident card, commonly called a green card. Court files indicate that immigration authorities stepped into the case in March 2002.
Immigration’s public paper trail ends at that point.
Even attorneys representing detainees do not have the full access to records that routinely would be available to defendants’ lawyers in other legal proceedings. They must file Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and wait months to see their clients’ records, said Michele Garnett McKenzie, an attorney with The Advocates for Human Rights in Minneapolis.
Secrecy surrounding the system is one focus of criticism. Affording privacy to individuals in detention is important. But so is holding immigration enforcement authorities accountable and ensuring that detainees are treated fairly and humanely.
Detainees’ families, news organizations and human rights groups have fought for years to obtain confirmation of deaths in custody.
After repeated FOIA requests, the New York Times obtained a list of 90 people who had died in immigration detention between Oct. 7, 2003, and Feb. 7, 2009. But reports of more deaths continued to surface. And this month, ICE officials revealed that they had found 10 previously unreported deaths in their system.
“Getting details about those who die in custody is a difficult undertaking left to family members, advocacy groups and lawyers,” the Times said.
Of course, people die in prison all the time from natural causes. What advocates for the detainees want is more openness so they can know why a death occurred and whether it could have been prevented.
Whether or not Maria Inamagua’s life could have been saved remains a point of contention between the government and human rights advocates.
The Ecuadoran woman was arrested in Minnesota in February 2006 for failing to comply with an order of deportation. In Ramsey County jail, she complained of headaches and told the staff the Tylenol and aspirin she was given “don’t do anything” to relieve the pain. Five weeks later, she reportedly struck her head in her cell and fainted. After four hours of observation, she was taken to a hospital where she died on April 3, 2006.
Her death set off an uproar in Minnesota. The Inspector General for ICE investigated the case and said the detainee had died of a pre-existing condition: an infection of the brain caused by larva of the pork tapeworm.
The Inspector General’s report (PDF) noted that the detainee had not received a physical exam, which ICE standards require within 14 days of intake. It also said that ICE could have expedited her care had it taken greater efforts to recognize her condition.
But it concluded that “neither more timely medical attention for the head trauma nor a more timely initial medical exam would have ensured the detainee’s recovery.” It also commended ICE for notifying Inamagua’s spouse of her death.
Years in detention
For Wopea, the most chafing issue is the time he has spent behind bars. He was not deported when immigration authorities stepped into his case. Instead, he was in and out of lockups — held for months at a time, released, confined under house arrest, then behind bars again.
While released, he fathered a boy who now is 6 years old.
One reason for delay may be that the family initially fought deportation. Miamen, the father, tried everything he could to save his son from going back to Liberia. Warlord Charles Taylor — now on trial for war crimes – was in power when Patua Wopea was first detained and Liberia was wracked by bloody conflict. The family argued that sending Wopea into that setting would violate U.S. law prohibiting removal where a person is likely to be tortured or killed.
Now that Liberia has a new government and U.N. peacekeepers in place, that argument holds less sway. Wopea said he received a new order of deportation in 2007, was apprehended last Sept. 2 and has been held in detention ever since.
In June, he was transferred to Louisiana where he expected to board a flight for Monrovia along with 30 other Liberian detainees. Instead, he was flown back to Minnesota, held in two different jails and then sent to Grand Forks.
Wopea said he has been told the deportation may have been aborted because of swine flu or a dispute over money the Liberian government had expected to receive.
“I don’t know what the reason is,” he said. “All I know is that I want to be set free. Deport me or let me out.”
Questions at the heart of liberty
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that detainees cannot be held indefinitely.
In Zadvydas v. Davis, a 2001 case, it said that “permitting indefinite detention of an alien would raise a serious constitutional problem.” Freedom from such imprisonment and government custody “lies at the heart of the liberty” protected by the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause, it said.
The court set six months as the limit of time for the government to hold an alien. But it also said confinement could continue “until it has been determined that there is no significant likelihood of removal in the reasonably foreseeable future.”
The upshot is a clear six-month limit for detainees from counties like Cuba and Vietnam, which flatly refuse to accept any deportees from the United States, said John Keller, executive director of the Immigration Law Center of Minnesota.
The limit is not at all clear for those from countries like Liberia and Somalia where chaos and instability may indefinitely delay but not absolutely bar deportees, said Keller, who is not involved in Wopea’s case
“You sort of enter a grey area for countries where deportation is infrequent or very difficult but not impossible,” Keller said.
According to ICE, detainees stay in the nationwide system for an average of 30 days. That average reflects the fact that tens of thousands are apprehended at border ports and turned around within a few hours.
But the average masks the reality that others like Wopea can be trapped for years.
A key point in the reform debate will be whether “Zadvydas means something,” Keller said, “whether it means that someone cannot be locked up indefinitely.’
Wopea views the six-month rule as “a trick law.” He has seen others held longer than six months, especially Somalis.
“They always say, ‘You fit in the reasonable foreseeable future category,.'” he said. “I committed the crime when I was 19 years old. I served my time. Why am I still in jail?”
Sharon Schmickle writes about national and foreign affairs and science. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.