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Forgotten Prisoners

Jacob Wheeler - December 21st, 2006
José Hernan’s deportation back to his native Ecuador for violating his tourist visa was supposed to be quick and easy. “Within a few days,” Hernan was told the morning after he arrived at the Chippewa County Jail in Sault Ste Marie — as long as he signed a “voluntary departure” form, essentially relinquishing his right to seek legal help.
“A few days,” Hernan was promised, and he’d be back home with his family in the Andes Mountains… “A few days,” my family in Empire was told when we returned a phone call to an agent Cheney of the U.S. Border Patrol, who had detained our friend after an arts and crafts show in St. Ignace on September 3. (We never did learn the agent’s first name.)
Two months later José Hernan was still there, languishing in a jail cell and cut off from the world while his deportation file gathered dust at a maze of federal agencies under the guise of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the successor to Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) under the post-9/11 Department of Homeland Security.
Meanwhile, this country’s taxpayers fork out as much as $80 per day for each federal prisoner awaiting the inevitable deportation back to their homeland. Chippewa County Jail’s Sheriff Jeffrey Moran claims that the Sault Ste Marie jail receives $56 per day per federal inmate — under the national average. Still, at that rate Hernan’s incarceration cost us $3,360 — almost seven times the cost of an actual flight back to Quito. A fellow Ecuadorian inmate waited in Chippewa County Jail for 10 months. Do the math: 300 days, at $56 per day, equals $16,800 —the price of our inefficient, and some would claim racist, deportation system.

WHY SO LONG?
Why does the deportation process take so long? According to Tara Tidwell-Cullen of the National Immigrant Justice Center in Chicago, a federal judge must first approve the deportation order, and then ICE must obtain travel documents from the detainee’s country. Without these documents the detainee can’t travel. Previously, INS (now ICE) couldn’t indefinitely detain non-citizens whom it couldn’t remove (such as a citizen of the former Yugoslavia whose government no longer officially exists) for more than six months, but the precedent established by the Supreme Court’s decision in Zadvydas v. Davis is not always upheld — such as the case with Hernan’s Ecuadorian jail mate.
Deportable aliens are usually taken to their countries on chartered flights called JPATS (Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation System). In the past, flights to Mexico have gone once a week, on Fridays, but Tidwell-Cullen thinks that may have changed. Flights to other countries are not as standard, and detainees flown home on commercial flights, with or without handcuffs, is not unheard of either.
Though the terrorist attacks five years ago were executed by Islamic fundamentalists from the Middle East, many argue that the paranoia and Patriot Act legislation that followed, have hurt Latinos from south of our border more
than anyone.

INDIAN CRAFTS
José Hernan was caught in that net before he was finally deported on November 8 -- 66 days after his capture. Yet, Hernan actually had a visa to be in this country legally. He has spent years in the United States and hadn’t been arrested before or caused any problems before this fall. He’s traveled back and forth between the Midwest and South America with relative ease. That’s because he and his family are Otavaleños, Quichua Indian artisans from a market town in northern Ecuador that’s well known on the backpacker and tourist circuit for its beautiful indigenous fabrics and textiles.
Because of their indigenous heritage, Otavaleños are often granted permission to sell their native products or play their Andean flute music — as Hernan’s sister Miriam puts it, “defending their culture” — and make a little money on the side, despite not having work visas. Artisans from Otavalo show up on the street corners of cities all over Europe, Japan and Canada, and in Hernan’s case, at arts and crafts shows all over the upper Midwest.
But in the post-9/11 United States, the department of Immigration and Customers Enforcement falls under the Department of Homeland Security, suggesting that all visitors to our country should be suspected as terrorists. Just a few months ago, before the federal government passed more anti-immigrant legislation, Hernan would have been given a slap on the wrist and 30 days to leave the country for selling at an arts and crafts show without a work visa.

WRONG PLACE, WRONG TIME
On the afternoon of Sunday, September 3, Hernan was packing his artisan wares into his van at the conclusion of the Labor Day weekend Art Dockside fair, near the base of the Mackinaw Bridge in St. Ignace, when he was approached by agent Cheney and asked for his documentation.
Jen Joseph of the St. Ignace Chamber of Commerce, who plays a hand in facilitating Art Dockside, says that Hernan has appeared as a vendor at the annual show for many years. He’s often been the only minority vendor there, but Joseph attests that his products are popular in their uniqueness. As far as she knows, Hernan has never made any enemies in St. Ignace, and she doubts that another vendor ratted out their foreign competition.
Of course, the Labor Day Bridge Walk was to be held the following day, and security and police were numerous on September 3, as they have been ever since 9/11. Joseph figures that agent Cheney just happened to be in the area, and Hernan’s brown skin caught the border guard’s attention.
After the arrest, on the 45-minute ride through the Upper Peninsula on I-75 up to Sault Ste Marie, Hernan says that Cheney tried to get under his skin. The border guard allegedly lambasted the prisoner for wearing a t-shirt with the face of Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara on it, launching a political tirade about Cuba’s leader Fidel Castro and Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, and how they were threatening the United States. Hernan answered that he had purchased the shirt in, of all places, Norway, where Che’s face is an iconic symbol among Scandinavia’s youth.

FAMILY WORRIES
Once they arrived at the Chippewa County Jail, the handcuffs came off and Hernan was put behind bars. Not until the next day was he asked to fill out any paperwork and informed of his rights -- afforded to everyone, even non-citizens, under the Geneva Convention. “Sign this voluntary departure form, and you’ll be deported much faster,” Hernan says he was told. “Don’t waste time pursuing legal help, which will only delay things.”
Though he speaks and understands enough English to get by, a jail in a foreign country can be a dizzying and intimidating place. Hernan signed the ironically named “voluntary departure” form, putting himself at the mercy of the system.
As the days turned into weeks, his family worried about what was happening to Hernan and when he would return. His wife or his sister called me almost every other day, asking why the United States wouldn’t just deport him. His brother in Ecuador has a brain tumor, she told me, and he might not live to see Hernan again. Out of near desperation, the family finally hired a lawyer out of Grand Rapids named Richard Kessler, an advocate for Latino rights who once worked with the late Cesar Chavez, the famous leader of the California Farm Workers.
Kessler is appalled at the way ICE handled Hernan’s case. It took more than a month for his file to reach one of the three immigration judges in Detroit who have to approve the deportation, but once the attorney intervened to reverse Hernan’s “voluntary departure” status in hopes of helping him stay in the country, the process virtually started over again as the result of a misplaced file.
Kessler adds that Hernan’s file status as OTM (Other Than Mexican) slowed down his case because most of the foreign nationals caught in the United States are Mexicans who are deported within a few weeks of their arrest. (Apparently, other nationalities take longer to process. - ed.)

PRISON IN THE U.P.
Visiting a friend behind bars for the first time is a depressing experience. Sundays are visitation days in Chippewa County Jail for men whose last names began late in the alphabet, and visitors are forced to wait in a stuffy hallway for what seems like an eternity before an intercom voice invites you into a room the size of a closet, where your friend sits behind a Plexiglas wall, clad in prisoner orange — unable to reach out and shake your hand. Both the visitor and the inmate are treated, and ignored, like prisoners.
When I visited Hernan in late September, he told me mortifying stories of how his fellow foreign nationals awaiting deportation were treated — albeit, not beaten nor tortured.
Among the 13 male foreign inmates in Sault Ste. Marie was a Chinese man whose wife was incarcerated in the same jail, probably just a wall away, but they were not allowed to see each other. To communicate, they were forced to send letters to family members living in the Upper Peninsula who forward the mail back to the spouse in jail.
Then there’s the other Ecuadorian who held the dubious distinction of being the senior member of the 13 men awaiting deportation to their homes all over the world: Senegal, Bulgaria, China, Mexico, Cuba. The money we American taxpayers shelled out to hold Hernan’s countryman – $16,800 – compares to the annual salary of a minimum wage worker. He was held for 10 months — a blatant violation of the Supreme Court’s decision in Zadvydas v. Davis.
The other Ecuadorian prsioner was losing it, Hernan attested, crying out at night for his family and shaking with nerves every morning. He wondered if he’d ever see his family again.

INNER CALM
José Hernan himself was a study of mental perseverance. In the time my family and I spent with him, Hernan exhibited an inner calm. He didn’t speak much, which sometimes gave others the false impression that he didn’t understand English. But Hernan, like his sister Miriam and other Otavaleños I met on a trip to Ecuador early this year, seemed tolerant of what he could not change. Tolerant of his work that forces him to live out of a van in a faraway country for six months a year while he visits arts and crafts shows as the lone, token foreigner trying to earn enough money to feed his family.
The Ecuadorian economy is a wreck, largely due to free trade economic policies forced on Latin America by Washington and the World Bank. These policies have all but wrecked the job markets of countries in South America, Central America and Mexico, contributing more than any other reason to the surge in Latinos (and Indians) coming north to find work.
The difference between the Mexicans and Central Americans harvesting many crops in Northern Michigan, and the Ecuadorian Indian artisans like Hernan is that the Otavaleños tend to return home.
“We indigena always return because otherwise we would miss our roots,” explained Hernan’s sister Miriam. “The union of the family mostly, and our language, is so important. When I’m here I miss walking on the small paths among my people.
“As Quichua we help each other out. There are some artists who are unable to leave the country. So we buy from them and sell the products abroad. If we didn’t do this, our culture, our work, would die. It’s the same thing with my musician husband Luis. If he didn’t play his songs from the Andes Mountains, no one would remember them.”
My mother and I visited Miriam in Ecuador in February on a trip with the primary purpose of learning about the cacao my mother uses in her chocolate. What struck us most was the pride of the people in the northern highlands. We even got to witness the Pawkar-Raimi — the annual celebration for the corn harvest where a Miss Native Ecuador is crowned.
In Otavalo the indigena have done well for themselves. Unlike the often impoverished state of “Indians” in North and Central America, many Quichua families in Hernan’s home village own a good car with a sticker of a national flag on the back, signifying which wealthy country that person visits for several months a year, to tell the world about their traditions and artisan crafts. Most importantly, they always return home.
That’s all José Hernan wanted to do — go home.
 
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