During the 1990’s, I was working as a freelancer in Miami, covering the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s (INS) Krome detention center for the weekly Haïti Progrès. Haitians made up the majority of Krome detainees at the time—as they do again today—but there was also an international mix. Nigerians had become a particular target of detention officers’ discrimination and brutality because these prisoners tended to be politicized, assertive and English speaking.
One Nigerian asylum seeker told me that an INS detention officer had walked into the men’s dormitory and threatened sexual assault against him and other prisoners. At least one other detainee told the same story. I contacted the public affairs office of the Miami District INS to request a tour of the detention center. According to the INS’s own detention standards, media tours are easily arranged, no big deal. In practice, of course, public access is a very different matter.
Public affairs officer Lamar Wooley denied my request. He said that giving tours to individual reporters would be disruptive, but that when a pool of reporters expressed interest we could arrange something. Since Krome was known for its cowboy-style operation (the Miami INS would later be critized by the Office of Inspector General for its efforts to hoodwink congressional investigators), it was not hard to find reporters on the Miami beat interested in touring the facility. Eleven writers and photographers, including representatives of The Miami Herald, New Times, The Washington Post, and Reuters, requested a pool tour. Request denied. Spokesperson Wooley explained District Director Walter Cadman’s decision: “Nothing unusual has happened or is happening to warrant this type of coverage…. Obviously there has to be a reason to disrupt the routine at the Krome facility.”
A flurry of letters going up to the INS commissioner followed. Amnesty International wrote to the district director: “If access to Krome has been denied to reporters and others, we question why this has occurred at a time when concerns about conditions there have been expressed publicly by detainees, by advocates, and in the media.” The agency finally relented. And while INS media access policy gives wide latitude to the district director in structuring press pools, the INS’s concession simply confirmed that its original decision had been intended to obstruct any independent investigations. Not one of the original 11 requesters was part of the group allowed in, and only one of the original media organizations was included.
The pattern has been repeated around the country. When the ACLU was investigating the Varick Street detention facility in New York, the INS refused access to the housing areas. A corrections expert and former warden who was assisting the group said that he had “never experienced [that] in over 39 years of professional work in facilities including Alcatraz and Marian,” the ACLU later reported.
All this may seem like ancient history to those who first became aware of the INS and its detention system after September 11. The agency’s culture of lawlessness and disinformation was in place long before John Ashcroft became Attorney General, though it is no secret that under Ashcroft the Justice Department has taken full advantage of our national trauma to codify the excessive powers it has been working toward for many years. At least the INS’s secrecy is less of a secret now.
The agency is more shameless now, too. Recently the Newark District INS decided that I was asking the wrong questions of the wrong people. Back in April, I had requested and was granted permission to interview a Pakistani detainee who was a victim of the post-September 11 dragnet. Anser Mehmoud was picked up from his home by the INS in October. Agents told his wife that he would probably be home the next day since the FBI had already questioned and cleared him. He then spent more than four months in solitary confinement at MDC, the federal prison in Brooklyn, though he was never charged with anything other than immigration violations. He was later moved to the Passaic County Jail in Paterson, New Jersey, where I met him, before he was sent back to Karachi.
The day after I interviewed Mehmoud, I got a call from Newark INS Public Affairs officer Kerry Gill. He asked me whether it was true that when I visited the jail, I had asked the on-site INS official how many special interest detainees were being held there. When I said yes (I hadn’t gotten any answer, of course), Gill went on at length to tell me that my question was “inappropriate,” since the Attorney General had ordered the district director not to disclose these numbers. He added that I knew this, having been on a media tour of the Hudson County jail when the district director herself said so. Although I was more than a little shocked by Gill’s reaction, I tried to have a reasonable conversation with him and explain to him that the Attorney General’s orders to his subordinates did not apply to journalists. We actually had a conversation about whether journalists are obligated to stop asking questions when government officials say that they won’t answer them.
Gill also alleged that I had violated INS detention standards concerning media visitation. When I asked which standard he was referring to, he decided that our conversation was over. From now on, he said, my requests for visits with detainees in the Newark district, by order of the district director, would only be permitted when an INS public affairs official was available to accompany me to the jail (though the official would not be present during the actual interviews). I wrote to District Director Andrea Quarantillo, asking her to remove this restriction. She has refused, directing me, as Gill had, to the INS Web site where I could find INS detention standards on media visits. Like Gill, she failed to cite any specific standard that I had supposedly violated. In refusing to lift the restrictions placed on me, Quarantillo wrote: “I have found no evidence or indication on your part that you plan to observe the agency’s procedures for the release of official information.”
The arrogance at work here affects all of us. Interference with journalists does not compare to the harm the agency can do to the prisoners it is hiding, but these two forms of repression are connected. The New Jersey INS banned Jesuit Refugee Service Bible classes in its Elizabeth Detention Center after teachers and their detained students discussed a taboo topic: detention. More recently, District Director Quarantillo pulled out of a public meeting set up by immigrant advocacy groups when the organizers refused to comply with the INS condition that journalists be forbidden from participating.
It should be clear that the Department of Justice cannot decide which questions reporters can ask or of whom we can ask them. I believe that we should challenge this lawlessness head on, and a number of fine reporters have been doing so. But others are not willing to lose the limited access they now have by advocating for more. Back in Miami years ago, I contacted The Associated Press reporter whom the INS had asked to direct the pool tour of Krome. He was glad to hear how the tour had come about, saying he knew that the INS must have been up to something to offer a tour when he had not requested one. Then he got nervous and asked me not to use his name. He said he still needed the INS to return his calls.
Mark Dow is a poet and freelance writer. He won a Project Censored Award for his reporting on INS detention and is working on “American Gulag: Inside U.S. Immigration Prisons” for the University of California Press (2003). He would be grateful to reporters willing to speak with him (anonymously or otherwise) about their experiences with the INS.