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The Detainee




Sally Ahearn



I opened my e-mail and found a hate message about immigrants. It claimed that the U.S. should ship them all back to where they came from, since they were stealing Americans’ pay. I cringed as I thought of my Irish immigrant parents, and how they had been such loving people. I flew into a rage and went on the Internet, where I found the nonprofit organization First Friends. I learned that they helped immigrant detainees at the Elizabeth Detention Center, or EDC, in Elizabeth, New Jersey, not far from where I lived.


I joined First Friends. They assigned me to visit a detainee who spoke English. I entered the EDC and waited in line to hand over my driver’s license to the guard. Another guard X-rayed my purse, after pawing around in it, and made me walk through a metal detector. There was a loud brrring! The guard commanded me to empty my pockets and take out my keys. He pushed a button, and an ominous, heavy metal door slowly slid open, then shut behind me. I waited as the interior door rolled back, and I could see the glassed-in visitors’ room. I sat down in a cubicle. Finally, a prisoner was escorted to the seat before me. I picked up the phone; he did likewise.


“How are you?” I asked. “My name is Kathy. And you must be Abhai?”


He nodded his head and smiled.


“How did you get into this place?”


“My Working Visa had expired. I was painting with a crew that was hired here. They threw every one of us in here, and now we’re painting the place for a dollar each a day.”


“No!” I said.


“That’s what they pay you here for your work.”


Eventually I came to know that Abhai was 27 and an Indian man of Portuguese descent. He was sweet and worried that his mother would find out where he was and never be able to sleep again.


I would send Abhai books, which he read avidly. He told me that there was only one television for 40 men in a dorm. Each nationality demanded time viewing their shows, so he began to learn Spanish and Chinese just to pass the time.


Once, I asked him, “So, what’s it really like in there?


He answered, “The bunks the detainees sleep on are so small that the taller men’s feet hung over the edge.”


“What’s the food like?” I asked.


“It’s edible,” he said.


He got thinner and thinner before my very eyes each time that I would visit. He began to look pale and haggard as the year wore on.


During the summer, I told Abhai that there was a bear in my neighborhood. It was so evident that I was anxious, that he took pity on me. In order to distract me, he topped that by saying, “I had a tiger in my neighborhood that ate the farmers’ pigs. Not only that, my family has a huge papaya tree in our backyard, and the monkeys eat the fruit when it’s ripe. My mother asked me to make a scarecrow to scare the monkeys away, so I put one out on the balcony. Then I watched with my own eyes as a monkey looked at the scarecrow and climbed on top of its head to reach the ripest and juiciest fruit.”


I laughed so hard that everyone in the visitor’s room turned to stare, as if to say, “What could be so funny in this godforsaken place?”


One day Abhai said, with a look of sheer desperation in his eyes, “Please get me out of this place. My sister is getting married in two months, and I’m afraid I’m going to miss the wedding.”


I tried calling the Indian embassy and got the runaround. The only thing that I could find out was that officials had been to Abhai’s parents’ house and determined that he was an Indian citizen, which was the first step in obtaining an Indian passport. It was also a step that he had put off pursuing, since he didn’t want his mom to have any sleepless nights over him. Unfortunately, I also learned that the Indian system was corrupt and that it helped to expedite the situation if you lined a few palms with the good old American dollar.


Finally, one night Abhai called and asked me if he could wire $2,000 to me via Western Union. He asked me to take the money to a Sri Lankan lawyer who specialized in immigration law in New York City. This lawyer had helped other detainees at the center to get released. I agreed to help.


It turned out that the local Western Union was my supermarket. I got the money and drove into the city with it, worried that I would get mugged with all that cash on me. I met the lawyer and he said the detainees cannot be held for more than six months if the government had nothing on them. He agreed to proceed in court after I handed his clerk the $2,000.


Two weeks later, I got a phone call from Abhai. “I’ve been released!” he cried. “Thank you so much for your help. You’re a good person.”


It had been some time since I had heard from Abhai when I received a letter from him. He wished me well and informed me that he had been married in June of that year and that his new wife was now six months pregnant.


“Thank you for helping me out of that horrible place,” Abhai wrote. “You were the only one I could trust and who believed in me. I’m happy here in Goa, a beach resort where it is beautiful all year round. Soon I will have a small family, and I owe that to you.”            

BIO: Sally Ahearn is a writer, teacher, and editor, who lives in New Jersey.

MOTIVATION: This is a fictional account of a year I spent visiting a detainee at the Elizabeth Detention Center. It is mostly based on fact.

 Photo by: Miguel Saavedra

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