Tovar, whose children include US citizens though he has been here illegally since 2001, was eventually freed, but few immigrants have journalists making calls about them.
■ An Arizona mother, brought here from Mexico as a baby, was locked up for seven months in an immigration prison, away from her children, after one of the nation’s best known anti-illegal immigration crusaders raided the restaurant where she worked. Luz Tamayo now faces deportation to a country she scarcely knows.
■ A Massachusetts man faced deportation and was jailed after he attempted to do what the government asked in 2003, voluntarily reporting that he was here illegally. By the time immigration officials finally sent Elmaati Hachani a deportation hearing notice almost eight years later, he had moved and the notice went to the wrong address. Hachani then was dramatically arrested in front of his pregnant wife and locked up for the next two months; she miscarried days later.
Immigration officials dropped the case against Hachani on Friday after numerous questions from the Globe.
Although only about one in 30,000 detainees dies in custody, Irene Bamenga’s case was in no way isolated: 10 other detainees died in immigration custody in 2011, including 55-year-old Jose Aguilar-Espinoza, who died of heart problems in California. Aguilar’s family contended in a lawsuit that his death could have been prevented, arguing that jail officials should have known that he had a pacemaker and that authorities failed to render immediate care for his serious medical needs.
Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, a 47-year-old detainee from China hanged himself with a bed sheet, one of perhaps a dozen suicides in custody since 2003, based on ICE records.
Media reports about deaths in custody have spurred attempts at making the system more transparent, such as publicly listing the names and causes of death of the 131 detainees who have died in detention since 2003. President Obama has tried to lift the veil further, while pushing immigration to focus enforcement on criminals rather than the majority of the nation’s 11.5 million undocumented immigrants. Immigration officials’ own reports have concluded that locking up most illegal immigrants is both unnecessary and expensive — $122 a night per detainee.
But reforms have been slow to catch on in a system that has become the nation’s largest law enforcement network. About 90,000 federal employees work for the four main agencies that make up the immigration system, with a combined budget of $20 billion — dwarfing even the $10 billion and 40,000 employees in combined resources of the FBI and the US Marshals Service.
Last year, ICE detained a record 429,247 foreign nationals — more than double 2001 levels — and deported 396,906 immigrants, at least 180,000 of whom may have been here illegally but had no criminal record. By ICE’s own estimate, many thousands of them could have been spared deportation under its 2011 policy of “prosecutorial discretion,” or selectively enforcing the law.
In Irene Bamenga’s case, records show that the border agents had filled out a form that could have cleared the way to let her go. On the form, they listed no threat posed by Bamenga except that she was “likely to add to the illegal population.” But agents did not list her medical condition, which could have been a reason to let her fly to France on her own rather than face detention. The agents detained her anyway. Their names have been blacked out in records obtained by the Globe under a Freedom of Information Act request.
ICE, which took responsibility for Bamenga from the border agents, says they acted correctly, noting in a statement that Bamenga knew that she would be subject to immediate deportation without right of appeal if she stayed in the United States longer than 90 days. She had been here since 2005, and ICE officials said that deportation of people who overstay their visa waivers is essential, or else everyone would feel free to stay indefinitely.
But others say Bamenga’s imprisonment was both unnecessary and wildly disproportionate to an immigration violation — yet typical of the harsh treatment meted out to many illegal immigrants.
“The problem is, Ms. Bamenga is just a really horrible, specific example of the system,” said Joanne Macri, head of of the Criminal Defense Immigration Project for the New York State Defenders Association, who raised questions about the case after Bamenga’s death last year.
If Bamenga had been charged with a crime, Macri said, it would have been simple for her to get medical care within hours — at the bail hearing guaranteed to newly arrested defendants, citizens or not — under the US Constitution.Continued...