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PROVIDENCE JOURNAL: U.S. agencies abuse Mexican immigrants

April 18th, 2010

By Martin Lepkowsk and Ellen McGill

In late February we left Rhode Island for the U.S./Mexican border.

We thought we were prepared for the reality of the war there, but it was far worse than we had imagined. Under the guise of protecting the country from drug smugglers and Mexican cartels, our government uses tax dollars to abuse undocumented immigrants.

Many have fled Mexico since implementation of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement. Since NAFTA, says Ann Vigna in “NAFTA Hurts Mexico Too,” there has been a 452 percent increase in immigration to the U.S. Witness for Peace, a Latin-American rights group, confirms that over 2 million farms were lost and wages fell to where one half of the population of Mexico now earns $3 or less a day. This has led many Mexicans with nowhere to turn except north.

In Tucson, we were met by our friend Molly Little, of South Kingstown, R.I. Since last November Molly has been working for No More Deaths, for which she interviews recent deportees to document rights abuses during arrest and deportation. Molly also joins NMD volunteers who hike into the Sonoran Desert to find migrants’ trails in order to leave water and food and, when necessary, provide medical aid.

Since 1998 over 5,600 men, women and children have died trying to reach the border, and No More Deaths volunteers have found bodies in the desert, where they sometimes also find handmade wooden crosses.

Migrants apprehended on or near the border encounter the U.S. Border Patrol, which has a reputation for using racist language, confiscating food, forcing people to abandon their backpacks and beating them with flashlights. Undocumented immigrants already living in the U.S. are arrested either by local law enforcement or by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers, often in raids.

Upon arrest, both migrants and U.S. residents suffer the same kinds of abuse. Some detainees do not receive food or water for as long as 24 hours. Frequently, they are not allowed a phone call, do not have access to a lawyer and are told to sign paperwork they do not understand. They may be transferred quickly to detention centers or prisons in other states, where they are “disappeared” from family and friends.

Prisons and detention centers everywhere are overcrowded, with people jammed into cells with little or no room to sit or lie down. Usually there is one dirty toilet, with a pipe next to the toilet the only water supply. Some take turns sleeping on cold concrete floors. Nearly all detainees report that they are held in very cold conditions and that requests for blankets are regularly denied.

Meals, served twice a day, are sparse; sometimes the food is cold or frozen, and smells and tastes bad. Should the detainees try to save a little food for later, the guards take it away.

Medical care is often denied. A young man whose knee is painfully swollen after being kicked by a Border Patrol Officer, asks for but receives no treatment. A pregnant woman is beaten but is refused medical care. A diabetic does not get insulin. A woman suffering from lung cancer needs medication every four hours but does not get it. A man with epilepsy is refused medication, suffers a seizure and splits open his chin. Eventually, he is taken to a hospital, where he receives stitches. Two days later — still with no medication — he returns to the prison and has another seizure. This time he breaks his nose.

Physical and verbal violence are prevalent. An old man who is shaking is thrown onto the floor. A diabetic in a wheelchair is slammed against a wall. Women are strip-searched and groped. One woman has a gun held to her throat. Men are stripped and forced to sit naked on the floor. Documented interviews reveal that guards laugh and mimic the mentally ill and the infirm. They call the detainees “Dirty Mexicans” and “Stinky Pigs” and use four-letter words to describe them.

Lockdowns can occur for the slightest infraction; in one case, women were not allowed to talk or leave their beds for three days.

These documented stories reveal a disturbing pattern of abuse regardless of whether the deportees 1) have been apprehended in the desert or in the U.S.; 2) are held for three days or three months; 3) are held in local jails, in one of the 350 ICE prisons, or in one of the 60 prisons run by Corrections Corp. of America (CCA).

There are no nationwide standards for the treatment of undocumented immigrants. Both ICE and CCA prisons operate with minimal oversight and with impunity. CCA, a for-profit prison business, has a documented history of letting detainees die as a result of inadequate medical care.

Take Hiu Lui Ng, 33, a computer engineer from New York who had overstayed his visa, and was interred in the CCA Wyatt Detention Center, in Central Falls, R.I. In agony from an undiagnosed fractured spine and advanced liver cancer, Ng was repeatedly denied medical care. He died in Rhode Island Hospital on Aug. 5, 2008.

As a people with a reputation for compassion, we cannot let these abuses to continue. Law-enforcement agencies must be held accountable for abuses that immigrants suffer while in custody.

No More Deaths offers these faith-based principles for consideration:

Recognize that the current Militarized Border Enforcement Strategy has failed; address the status of undocumented persons currently living in the U.S.; make family unity and reunification the cornerstone of the U.S. immigration system; let workers and their families enter the U.S. to live and work in a safe, legal, orderly and humane manner through an employment-focused immigration program; and recognize that causes of migration lie in environmental, economic and trade inequities.

Contact your federal legislators to demand an end to the abuse of undocumented immigrants and ask them to support comprehensive immigration reform.

To read this article in the Providence Journal, click here