Dogs Removed from Detention Centers
A first step to ending torture
By Jeannette Gabriel
NJ Civil Rights
The immigrant rights' movement won a significant victory in December, 2004, when the Dept. Of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement arm directed that all jails in the US holding immigrant detainees cease to use dogs around the detainees. The directive was a response to simultaneous reports on National Public Radio and in the New York Spanish-language newspaper El Diario documenting the use of the dogs to terrify and physically attack detainees.
The reports, and other previous news coverage, were the result of an 18-month-long campaign by immigrant rights and civil rights groups to expose the use of dogs to torture immigrant detainees. The canine abuse had been first reported to the press by NJ Civil Rights Defense Committee (NJCRDC) in a press conference July 18, 2003. The conference was held in connection with a hunger strike by Nigel Maccado and Hemnauth Mohabir, one of the detainees interviewed in the NPR report. Since then, NJCRDC and other immigrant rights groups, such as Families for Freedom, have been vigorously exposing dog attacks and beatings in the jails. The groups arranged detainee interviews for the news stories, including several with Rosendo Lewis, a Cuban detainee who was viciously bitten by a dog deliberately loosed on him by guards. This effort has been part of a general campaign to win the release of all the detainees, who are being held unconstitutionally without any criminal charges
This victory is a step forward in the battle to end all forms of torture by the US Government, whether in US jails, at Guantanamo or in Iraq. But it puts an end to only one type of detainee abuse. The worst abuse is to hold the detainees at all, as they are not charged with any crimes. Detainees are held by the Department of Homeland Security as "civil" detentions under laws passed in 1996 and vigorously enforced since September, 2001.
Since 2002 NJCRDC has been protesting the brutality inside the New Jersey jails where innocent immigrants are held as
criminals stripped of their Constitutional rights. We had been ignored by the mainstream press who first didn't want to hear about Muslims and South Asians and then did not want to hear about immigrants with previous criminal convictions. The press told us that the public wouldn't be sympathetic to immigrants' plight. Finally we got a break when Daniel Zwerdling from National Public Radio collected material from us and traveled around the world to see detainees who have been exiled away from their families.
Exposing the abuse
The radio show he produced and a two part expose by Eva Sanchez in El Diario, a daily Spanish newspaper in NYC, built up enough public pressure to force Immigration and Customs Enforcement (previously INS) to pull the attack dogs out of immigrant detainee units. At the same time as ICE's change in policy the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General announced that an audit would be conducted of four immigrant detainee facilities across the country - two of them are located in New Jersey, Hudson and Passaic County Jails.
In the wake of the withdrawal of the dogs, there was widespread press coverage of the plight of the detainees. But this is not yet enough to free the detainees.
The detainees continue to suffer, without access to basic medical care and legal support, shuttled to different facilities within the state and also down to Maryland and Louisiana. They feel disoriented and afraid, cut off from their families and communities. The threat of Guantanamo Bay hangs over the detainees, the public outcry against torture is not enough to stop the daily brutalities inflicted against them.
Why It Matters
The struggle to free the detainees is not just about the tens of thousands who are jailed and sent into exile every year. First and foremost the detentions are about the unconstitutional criminalization of immigrants that denies them access to free legal representation and a jury trial. The detentions are part of a War OF Terror on immigrants, depriving them of their ability to protest their living and working conditions. This has serious implications beyond the immigrant communities because the next step is to strip these rights away from citizens.
Abuse and torture, like the use of the dogs to attack detainees, are inevitable in any system of arbitrary detention. Only the protections of the Bill of Rights - no detention without charge, no forced questionings, no double jeopardy, no secret proceedings or "military tribunals"- stand in the way of police-state tactics. When these protections are flouted, the result is torture.
The government has effectively convinced the American people that immigrants are the "other" who can be criminalized without the protections of the Constitution, forced into low wage jobs with no hope of economic security and essentially dehumanized. Our struggle in New Jersey Civil Rights Defense Committee is about breaking down these divisions and building a society where democratic rights and hope for a better future are afforded to both immigrant and native-born.