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One Man, One Woman, One Prison and How We Stop a Health and Human Rights Disaster

by Kathleen Sullian, JD on April 3, 2009

A man dies in immigration detention; isn't this old news?

But the NY Times article on the almost forgotten death of Pakistani immigrant Ahmed Tanveer provides important insight — particularly for what reporter Nina Bernstein doesn't say directly.

The process that lead to discovery of Mr. Tanveer's death was not set in motion by Mr. Tanveer's family, nor his lawyer (he didn't seem to have one), nor New Jersey authorities, who apparently didn't investigate. Mr. Tanveer would still be forgotten if not for one woman, Jean Blum — a refugee from Nazi Europe who was outraged and saddened when detainees were shuttled off to Monmouth County Prison. She set out to do what a "civilian" could do — write to immigration detainees and make sure they weren't forgotten. Her ongoing contact with Monmouth detainees made her the person to whom Mr. Tanveer's cell-mate turned when tragedy struck.

"I am very, very aware of the issues that involve displaced people," said Ms. Blum, 73, who was a child when she and her parents, Polish Jews, fled the Nazis. "I could not turn my back, because that is my history."

It bears repeating that many other sick and dying immigration detainees need advocates with conscience:

As Congress and the news media brought new scrutiny to the issue, several detention deaths have highlighted problems with medical care and accountability.

The secrecy and brokenness of ICE detention will only be fixed when "Jean Blums" across the country — you and I, in every state and county — are watching detention centers, sharing what they know in places like this blog, and demanding action. All contact with detention centers helps make them more transparent and less able to hide flaws.

This is one of many ways that PHR Asylum Network members contribute: By traveling to detention centers to do forensic evaluations for asylum seekers, they show prisons as well as detainees that the outside world is watching.

And now that we're paying attention, how about asking how Ahmed Tanveer came to die a detainee in Monmouth County Jail? It probably will never be known:

Even now, most questions about Mr. Tanveer are unanswered, including just who he was and why he had been detained.

Chances are that Mr. Tanveer, like the majority of immigration detainees, had never been in custody before — no criminal background, no problems with the law. Maybe he feared returning to Pakistan, or was one of many immigrants working in New York to send funds home to his family.

Why does the government keep detaining these people until deportation cases are decided? Immigration and Customs Enforcement's own records show that the cost is extreme, and that there are other ways to make sure that people show up for deportation. As the AP recently revealed:

Based on the amount budgeted for this fiscal year, US taxpayers will pay about $141 a night — the equivalent of a decent hotel room — for each immigrant detained, even though paroling them on ankle monitors — at a budgeted average daily cost of $13 — has an almost perfect compliance rate, according to ICE's own stats.

Let's all be Jean Blums, tell what we see, and demand better from our government. ICE can do the right thing, right now. In keeping with the memory of Mr. Tanveer and others like him, why are they waiting?



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