By Greg Moses
“Family life is a basic privilege,” says Fort Worth photographer Ryan Pace as he catches a breath or two between morning photo sessions, lunch, and a sales meeting. “It’s a simple privilege that everyone should have. An American has a right to live with his spouse.”
Ryan, age 52, has known his 32-year-old spouse Lan Ying since 2003. They have been married since July, 2005. But since the time when immigration authorities shipped Lan Ying off to Haskell Prison for three months, he has lived with a fear that any day could bring the handcuffs that drag her out of his life forever.
As Ryan tells the story of his love and life with Lan (he pronounces the name Lane), it is not difficult to hear echoes from Geneva where the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Migrants last week delivered a critical report on migrant rights in the USA.
“The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State,” says the report from Jorge A. Bustamante, quoting directly from Article 16, paragraph 3, of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and article 23, paragraph 1, of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
“Furthermore,” states Bustamante, “article 23, paragraph 3 states that the right of men and women to marry and found a family shall be recognized. This right includes the right to live together.”
The Rapporteur’s report cites family rights in early paragraphs, because the USA has agreed to honor these principles. Yet Rapporteur Bustamante alleges, as the example of Ryan and Lan Pace illustrates, that the structure of immigration enforcement in the USA tends to disrespect family rights.
Lan Ying Pace left China in 2000 following a forced abortion, says Ryan. She applied for asylum as soon as she met USA immigration authorities at the airport gate. She has a legal record without blemish. Not even a traffic ticket. And now that she’s legally married, her husband doesn’t understand why the American government would keep trying to break the family apart.
Lan Ying was three years into her legal battle for asylum when Ryan met her in Dallas. He has participated in some of the legal efforts to secure her residency in the USA, but he claims to be no expert on the law. He just wants to make a plain case based on family rights.
Ryan remembers how on Nov. 30, 2006 he accompanied Lan to an “interview” at federal offices along Stemmons Freeway in Dallas. He assured Lan that her skepticism about the interview was unfounded. Since they had been married, Lan had been issued a Social Security card, a work permit, and a Texas driver’s license. The immigration authorities had simply called them for an “interview” to make sure things were going okay. Ryan and Lan brought along friends to wait in the parking lot with Lan’s 3-year-old child, Teresa.
Today, of course, Teresa cannot forget the day when her mother went into the Stemmons Freeway building and disappeared for three months. Instead of an “interview,” Lan was handcuffed and taken away.
“I didn’t have any idea why they arrested her,” recalls Ryan via telephone. “They told me they probably were not going to keep her very long. For two days I played hide-and-seek trying to find her. Then I found her at the Bedford Jail (near the Dallas-Fort Worth airport), where they would not let me see her.” When he went back to immigration offices the next day to post bond, the story had changed dramatically.
“They told me she had her day in court, her asylum claim was denied, and she would be immediately deported to China,” recalls Ryan.
“‘We don’t know why you’re bothering with her,’ they said.”
“And I looked back at them and said,’because she’s my wife.'”
Migrants in detention include many classes of victims, says the Bustamante report: “asylum-seekers, torture survivors, victims of human trafficking, long-term permanent residents facing deportation for criminal convictions based on a long list of crimes (including minor ones), the sick, the elderly, pregnant women, transgender migrants detained according to their birth sex rather than their gender identity or expression, parents of children who are United States citizens, and families.”
“Detention is emotionally and financially devastating,” writes the UN Rapporteur, “particularly when it divides families and leaves spouses and children to fend for themselves in the absence of the family’s main financial provider.” The report is sharply critical of mandatory detention laws that were placed on the books during backlash politics of 1996.
“Estimates based on the United States census find that 1.6 million adults and children, including United States citizens, have been separated from their spouses and parents because of the 1996 legislation and the expansion of the aggravated felony definition,” says the Bustamante report. “Families have been torn apart because of a single, even minor misdemeanour, such as shoplifting or drug possession.”
“In addition to the devastating effect that mandatory detention has on detained individuals, the policy has an overwhelmingly negative impact on the families of detainees, many of whom are citizens of the United States,” writes the Rapporteur.
In fact, Ryan began to fear that he, too, might be jailed without warning, leaving Lan’s daughter without a custodian. So he arranged to have the little girl placed with one of Lan’s relatives in the Dallas area. Lan’s daughter, a US citizen, had only recently been reunited with her mother. And now, following the “interview” on Stemmons Freeway, the family of three had been completely torn apart.
“Mandatory detention and deportation policy, therefore, has significant effects on United States citizens and the children of permanent residents, and other family members,” says the Bustamante report. “Families consistently bear many of the psychological, geographic, economic, and emotional costs of detention and deportation.”
Immigration authorities told Ryan to look for Lan in Dallas or Haskell, but he found her in Euless instead. At least in Euless, they let Ryan talk with Lan through a phone receiver across a glass partition. For two or three nights he could see her and speak with her for a half hour or so. Then, indeed, she was packed off to Haskell.
The Rolling Plains Regional Jail and Detention Facility in Haskell, Texas, is a 550-bed operation located 160 miles west of Fort Worth managed by the Emerald Companies. While Lan was there, it held men and women prisoners from Wyoming, but Wyoming reported bringing the women back in 2007 and expects to bring back the men in the near future. Of course, the Dallas immigration office sends people there, too.
Albanian asylum seeker Rrustem Neza languished for a year at Haskell prison under “indefinite detention,” separated from his wife and two boys. He was released on bond in late February, 2008, following a discussion of his case before the US House Subcommittee on Immigration.
Several asylum-seeking Palestinian families rounded up by immigration authorities days before the 2006 election were divided between Haskell prison and the T. Don Hutto prison in Taylor, Texas. Lan was placed into the Haskell cell that confined 20-year-old Suzi Hazahza and her 23-year-old sister Mirvat, who have since been deported.
“Immigrants indefinitely detained are left uncertain of their status, their rights and their futures,” says the Bustamante report. ”
Indefinite detention subjects the families of detained immigrants to the agony of not knowing when their loved one will be released or removed. It exacerbates existing mental health problems and retraumatizes individuals who have been subjected to torture or other forms of persecution in their home countries.”
In order to get Lan released from Haskell, Ryan collected 85 letters from family and friends. She was released after three months. Since that time, Lan has reported to immigration authorities on a monthly basis via telephone. Last summer, Ryan said the couple was summoned for another “interview” which he attended by himself.
“I just told them that they didn’t really want to clean the room, because Lan gets really ill over these things now.” It was a real interview that time, and apparently it went well.
At the end of the UN Special Report on Rights of Migrants in the USA, Rapporteur Bustamante makes a few recommendations. He suggests a second look at the 1996 policies which invoked the structure of mandatory, indefinite detentions. He recommends a genuine system of independent immigration judges who are not bound by Justice Department structures to ignore important questions of family rights.
“United States immigration laws should be amended to ensure that all non-citizens have access to a hearing before an impartial adjudicator, who will weigh the non-citizen’s interest in remaining in the United States (including their rights to found a family and to a private life) against the Government’s interest in deporting him or her,” says the UN report.
“I find it appalling,” says Ryan. “My family has been here since the 1600’s. I’m a 3rd generation Texan. We’ve looked into moving to Canada, but I’m too old and too poor to go anywhere. It’s the land of the free and it’s appalling. Lan’s been treated like an animal. And I’m not allowed to live with my wife in my country.”
Recently, Lan and Ryan bought a new television screen. Ryan remembers hesitating over the question of whether to hang the screen on the wall. Deep down, he still doubts whether tomorrow he’ll have a family in the family room anymore.