Elizabeth, N.J. — “H-26,” the guard yelled. “You have a visitor.”
Locked in a windowless warehouse for three months, Ibrahim Cisse had long given up hope of anyone finding him. How could he possibly have a visitor when no one in this country knew his name?
Nervously, he shuffled into the visitors room.
There, behind the glass partition, was a small woman with short brown hair and kind green eyes. Cisse stared at her suspiciously as he picked up the phone.
My name is Janet, she said, speaking in a soft voice in French. “I came as a friend.”
Cisse’s heart warmed at the sound of his own language. Still, he was cautious.
So many terrible things had happened since he had fled a gunfight on the streets of Abidjan and stowed away on a boat filled with crates of chocolate and cocoa. In America he was slapped in shackles, yelled at like a criminal, locked in jail first and then sent to this prison-like detention center. An immigration judge had ordered him deported, but because he had no passport or papers, the Ivory Coast refused to take him back. Cisse was a man without a country, without hope, without contact with the outside world.
Gently, Janet Curley coaxed him. What did he need?
He wanted to learn English so that he could understand what was happening. He wanted to find out about his family in Africa. Most of all, he wanted to be free.
I will teach you English, she said.
And so began an extraordinary journey, a friendship forged in the unlikeliest of settings, through a grubby glass partition in the visitors room of a detention center where 300 immigrants — none of whom are charged with a crime — are imprisoned.
Cisse, 27, spent 16 months in detention before being released on parole. Today, he calls the 49-year-old court clerk “Momma.” She loves him like her own family.
In a searing, first-person account, Fauziya Kassindja, a Togolese teenager who applied for asylum to escape female genital mutilation, described her 14 months in detention at Elizabeth. Her 1998 book, “Do They Hear You When You Cry,” so disturbed a group of congregants at the Riverside Church in Manhattan that they decided to take action. They would visit detainees and listen to their cries.
And so, on Saturdays and Tuesdays, a small band of people climb into a church van and drive 15 miles to Elizabeth. They come from all backgrounds: social workers, professors, students, a nurse, an engineer, a court clerk. Their mission is simple: to be a friendly face for an hour and make a commitment to be a real friend.
They call themselves Sojourners. In 10 years of visits they have transformed some detainee lives — but many say their own lives have been transformed as well.
“We try to bring some humanity into a place that is so dehumanizing,” Curley says.
The detention center is housed in a brown brick building on a bleak industrial stretch near Newark airport. Outside an American flag flutters next to a red one stamped CCA, for Corrections Corporation of America, the private prison contractor that runs the center. Inside, immigrants are detained indefinitely — some for months and years — while the government decides what to do with them.
Some have fled persecution in their country and applied for asylum after landing at a U.S. airport. Others were rounded up in raids because of problems with their paperwork or because they had no paperwork. Some were stopped at the border.
Their numbers have soared in recent years in the wake of tougher immigration laws, an intense new focus on deportation and a reorganization of the system after Sept. 11, 2001. About 300,000 immigrants are now deported annually, up from about 100,000 in the years before 2001. About 35,000 are held in a patchwork of detention centers all over the country.
Immigration officials defend detention as a necessary program, one designed to protect the country from undesirables and terrorists.
“Our mission is to detain and remove as many illegal aliens as possible, and it is done in a highly humane manner,” ICE spokeswoman Pat Reilly says. “Of course there are lots of compelling stories, but a judge has to make a decision based on the law.”
But critics question why conditions have to be so harsh.
Detainees wear prison uniforms. They are addressed by numbers, not their names. Men and women are segregated and even spouses are allowed no physical contact. There is no outdoor yard at Elizabeth, nor any windows. Detainees have no right to a lawyer, though legal aid firms offer their services pro bono.
“You lose your identity,” says Pradeep Thapa, a 36-year-old writer from Nepal, who was detained for 16 months. “You begin to feel like you don’t really exist, that maybe the life you had before never really existed either.”
Mary Schoen’s Roosevelt Island apartment is a tranquil place filled with books and pictures. There are sweeping views of the East River. A pot of spicy lamb stew simmers on the stove.
For Rwandans Jean-Bosco Ndayishimiye, 46, and his wife, Murekatete, this is the one place they can take a break from their nightmare.
Schoen, a 50-year-old nurse practitioner began visiting the Rwandan couple in Elizabeth shortly after they were detained in September 2006. But Schoen did far more than simply visit. She gave them money for phone cards; brought pictures and news from Rwanda; worked with pro-bono lawyers on their behalf.
And when the couple were finally released with electronic ankle bracelets in December 2007, Schoen brought them to her home. Their release had followed a chaotic few days during which the couple were almost deported after being denied asylum. A lawyer managed to get a last-minute reprise, pending an appeal to a federal court.
Their ordeal began after they arrived at Kennedy International Airport for a two-week vacation. An immigration officer informed them that their tourist visas had been canceled and they would have to return to Kigali. They were stunned by the news, and feared what would happen to them if they went back.
When they objected, they were handcuffed and taken to Elizabeth, where they spent 15 months fighting deportation.
The couple say they had a good life in Rwanda. He worked as a clerk for the American Embassy and she ran a small clothing store. Their children were doing well at school. But he had been involved in a bitter court dispute over property with relatives, one of whom is a high-ranking police official. Ndayishimiye says he fears for his life if he returns.
For seven months the couple lived in Schoen’s apartment while she helped them navigate their new life, find jobs, enroll in English classes, and find a rental room of their own. Now Ndayishimiye works in a commercial warehouse and Murekatete works as a home health aide.
Even if they win asylum, which would mean their children could join them, Ndayishimiye worries about the difficulties of starting a new life as he says “from zero.”
Schoen listens as she prepares dinner. She knows how hard it will also be on her if they are deported.
She has seen detainees disappear before — the 26-year-old Ethiopian woman who languished for two years only to be deported, the 50-year-old teacher from Burma who, knowing she was about to be sent back, pressed her hands and face against the glass and wailed “pray for me, pray for me,” as tears flowed down her face.
“It was like watching her drown,” Schoen says.
To receive asylum, immigrants must prove that they have been persecuted or have a “credible fear” of persecution on the basis of race, nationality, religion, political opinion or a membership in a particular social group.
Immigration judges, who decide their cases in closed courts, are rigid about interpretations. Couples like Ndayishimiye and Murekatete, for example, do not easily fall into one of the specific categories. Men like Cisse and his friend, Lassina Konate, 30, who also stowed away on a boat from the Ivory Coast, have no papers and were illiterate when they arrived; they are in an impossibly difficult position unless they can somehow find a lawyer.
Nationwide, immigration judges granted asylum to about 37 percent of 35,775 applicants in 2007, according to the Executive Office for Immigration Review.
Human rights groups condemn the limited right of detainees to appeal their incarceration, the lack of accountability at many centers and the psychological sufferings of those detained indefinitely.
Many also criticize the profits earned by the private companies that run detention centers. ICE officials say it costs about $175 a day to detain someone at Elizabeth. They refused to say how much ICE pays CCA.
ICE spokeswoman Reilly said the average length of stay is a month. Those who remain longer, she said, make their own choice to do so while they appeal deportation orders. As for those who have entered the country illegally — a misdemeanor — or who have lived here undocumented for years: “They broke the law,” she said. “When people disregard that law, what other laws will they disregard?”
It is a sunny fall day and Cisse is sitting in a downtown Manhattan restaurant with Curley and Konate sipping tea. The men can read and write English now. They can take the subway without getting lost. They can ask a police officer for help without feeling frightened.
And yet life is hard. They work for minimum wage — Cisse in a warehouse and Konate as a dishwasher — and have a tough time making ends meet. They don’t know what has become of their families or what will become of them.
Curley tells them that they have seen the worst of America, and she apologizes for that.
No, they say, smiling. They have seen the best of America.
Because in their darkest moments in the detention center, when they despaired that even God had forgotten them, a miracle happened: A stranger walked into their lives.