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A Letter From Immigration Detention

Commentary, New America Media Posted: Jan 30, 2009

On Jan. 22, Nuevas Raices, a family-run Spanish-language weekly in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, published a disturbing letter sent by an immigrant detainee in a regional jail. The letter described how a German-born inmate had pleaded insistently for medical help after suffering from sharp pain and instead, was thrown to the floor by guards and locked in an isolation cell. After some days in isolation, the detainee, Guido R. Newbrough, suffered a massive heart attack and stroke, which led to his death.

Yesterday, six days after the letter's publication by Nuevas Raices, Newbrough became the subject of a long article in The New York Times. The newspaper linked the 48-year-old's death to a pattern of deadly medical neglect at the network of county jails, private detention centers and federal facilities, where Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) holds immigrants awaiting deportation or court dates.

In the article, The New York Times references Nuevas Raices, though not by name, and interviews the letter's writer, who identifies himself only as "Jos" for fear of suffering reprisals while still at the jail. Nuevas Raices publisher Gerardo Pandolfi agreed for New America Media to translate and publish the letter. The original can be found on the newspaper's Website: www.nuevasraices.com.

For Pandolfi, who is Uruguayan, the issue of immigrant detention hits close to home. Because of a visa problem, he was held at a different local jail, he says, for over three months last year-- though he received good treatment.

"They're making money off of this," he says, referring to federal reimbursements local governments and private corrections contractors receive for holding immigrant detainees. "You get a silly traffic ticket and they put you away."

---- Marcelo Ballv

Letter from Jail

The reason behind this letter is to let people know what is happening in this immigration detention center [Piedmont Regional Jail, in Farmville, Va., where Newbrough suffered his heart attack]. I am a Hispanic man who has been detained here since May 2008. I was brought to this place after finishing a sentence. Many Latinos think that after finishing a sentence in the county they'll be sent home, but ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) officials detain you and bring you to this Immigration Detention Center. People are brought here from Manassas, Richmond, Roanoke, Fredericksburg, Harrisonburg, Winchester and many other jails and prisons in Virginia.

(They're brought here) whether they're legal or illegal, whether they're waiting to be deported to their home countries or to fight their case before an immigration judge. In my case, my first immigration court date was three months after being brought here for detention. They didn't give me bail so that I might prepare my case better. And since I don't have money I can't hire a good lawyer. Even with money, immigration lawyers take advantage of and swindle many people, and the judges are racist, they don't want to give opportunities to people who might stay and live in the United States. They're more likely to give opportunities to people from other parts of the world, but not a Latino.

They also keep people here who want to be deported, and they keep them here at least between three and nine months under the pretext that their information can't be located in the system. In Fairfax, there are officials who never answer their phone and are arrogant and abuse their power; they don't care if people have wife and kids that suffer outside. They simply say, "wait." In Virginia, the law says one can only be held for no more than between three to six months, but many times that limit is surpassed.

Another (issue) is the medical services, which in this place are the worst. An immigrant from Germany (Guido Newbrough) died due to a lack of medical services. He was never seen by a doctor when he complained of (intense) pain. One morning, he got up and asked that he be seen, He pushed against the door seeking help and the jail guards threw him onto the floor and dragged him to a cell called "the hole," where a prisoner is isolated from everyone else and can't use the telephone. In reality, it's a place used for punishment, and that wasn't appropriate in the case of this man who should have been taken to a doctor instead. What's most tragic is that from inside "the hole" he would beg for help. He died the day after Thanksgiving. The prison officials say he died from natural causes but those of us who were there know he died due to negligence. The news was published in a local newspaper. The Farmville Herald published an ICE statement on the death, and ICE launched an investigation. But I think they will cover up the truth.

Another case is that of a Honduran detainee who was confined to "the hole" for 14 months because they said he was crazy. But I think he became crazy due to being isolated for that length of time .... (The hole) is meant for high-security prisons. The injustice they committed with that immigrant in this detention center is something unspeakable.

Also, Latinos are discriminated against by the guards in this place. They don't listen to us and they think that because we're awaiting deportation, there's no reason to respect us and allow us our rights: we're seen as less than dogs.

We know that all of this is a result of the fact that Bush, in 2003, created ICE, which is in charge of arresting immigrants, men and women, whether they have a criminal record or not. And an example of that is what has happened in Prince William County, which imposed racist laws, and these have spread like a cancer throughout Virginia. (In 2007, Prince William County in northern Virginia, imposed one of the most aggressive immigration enforcement policies in the country, directing law officers to question all detainees about their immigration status.)

There's no doubt that Bush's policies have been anti-immigrant. The Department of Homeland Security was created to arrest terrorists, but these enter the country legally. They don't cross the border like so many Latinos who come to seek a better life for their families do. Latinos take jobs as dishwashers, they mow lawns, or take up heavy construction jobs, or clean hotel rooms.

Instead of racist policies, we need a just immigration reform, and no more prisons or detention centers. Farmville plans to build a detention center to house 1,000 immigrants detainees, who may have been arrested for driving without a license or other traffic violations, or for having expired visas or other situations related to their immigration status. There's a strong opposition being mounted now against the construction of this new prison, with the assistance of a human rights group [People United, A Virginia social justice group has led the campaign against the new detention center, as well as the campaign to put the national spotlight on Newbrough's death, but the mayor of this town refuses meetings to discuss the issue. Of course, he'll stand to benefit from this project since the federal government will fund his county and surely, the mayor wants part of those funds, exploiting the suffering of people whose only crime is to want a better future.

The American people must know about this because many citizens defend equality of rights and values; that is what has helped America grow, but the former administration has ruined decades of struggle. The hope is in the new government of Barack Obama, and that he not forget the Latino vote and that he achieve immigration reform. May God shine a light on him. Let him not give in to racist and anti-immigrant policies.

Thank you for your time and I hope that people may find out more about the situation we find ourselves in, which in reality is part of history. Perhaps on another occasion I can continue this correspondence.



Related Articles:

Chosing Hope Over Fear in Immigration Reform Policy

Immigrant Rights Signed Away?

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