The first room in the former warehouse, now a detention center, is a waiting area where visitors check in and wait to see whether they will be allowed to visit a detainee.
Security screening is similar to that at an airport checkpoint. Visitors must show identification and leave belongings in a locker. No phones. No pictures. No recording of any kind.
“This one is actually nice. She is helpful,” a local volunteer who regularly visits detainees tells me about the security official standing behind the window. Above the window: “United We Stand.”
On a dead end road in Elizabeth, New Jersey, the Elizabeth Detention Center is an immigration jail that holds about 285 people. Privately owned, it is run by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the fifth-largest corrections company in the United States.
The center is in an industrial area surrounded by parking lots, a railroad, a freight station and the New Jersey Turnpike — a geographic location that works as an invisible wall.
Current U.S. policy is to detain those who ask for asylum once they reach a U.S. port of entry regardless of whether they have a valid visa. The Elizabeth Detention Center is a 15-minute drive from Newark Liberty International Airport, one of the busiest entry points to the U.S. for international arrivals.
A name and a number
It is late afternoon at the end of October; about 30 people are waiting to see friends or loved ones inside the Elizabeth facility. All the blue plastic chairs are taken, and there is a check-in line. Some wait outside. Church groups, mothers and children, and other people visiting loved ones wait their turn. Also, volunteers from local nonprofit groups visit detainees every week.
I have been given the name and alien number of a detainee by First Friends, an immigrant advocacy group. It’s all the information I need to be admitted as a volunteer visitor. The goal of the visitation program, according to First Friends organizers, is to give immigrants a moment of support and friendship.
I am asked to show identification. My Maryland driver’s license is met with a skeptical look by the officer. She double-checks front and back, but I get the green light to enter. Like all visitors, I must go through a metal detector, take my shoes and jacket off, and leave my pen and notebook behind. I then step inside a large metal jail door that closes with a clank before another slides open on the other side.
“I never get used to this sound,” another visitor tells me.
Once the gates of an immigration detention center close on asylum seekers, they may not open again for months. As of September, immigration officials say, there were more than 38,000 immigrants detained nationwide in 203 facilities. Detainees leave a detention center once their cases have been gone through the immigration process, which could mean authorization for them to live in the United States or deportation.
The visitation area is filled with round tables and chairs. Detainees must sit facing officers who are posted on the right side of the room. In the back, on a single row of chairs, immigrants wait for their visitors.
Under a Statue of Liberty mural, I sit at a round table and face Faras Khan from Pakistan, who is in the midst of deportation proceedings. His girlfriend is also visiting. As a corrections officer watches from the side of the room, Khan talks about his case, how he feels he is an American because he has not lived in Pakistan since he was a 1-year-old.
Khan’s father sought asylum after overstaying a nonimmigrant visa, claiming he had been persecuted in Pakistan. At the time, Khan, still a child, was listed as a derivative beneficiary. His father’s asylum was denied, and he was deported to Pakistan.
But Khan, now in his late 20s and diagnosed as bipolar, is fighting to stay. He was taken into custody after a meeting with immigration officials and has been detained for more than six months.
A 2016 Human Rights First report shows that clients held at New Jersey facilities, who were represented by Human Rights First pro bono attorneys, were detained for an average of eight months.
Edafe Okporo was held at Elizabeth for five months. He was taken there after his flight landed at Newark, and he requested asylum.
“I was told by immigration that they don’t have housing for immigrants, arriving alien, so I was told I was going to be taken to a jail,” Okporo said.
Okporo is from Nigeria, where he was working as an LGBTQ rights and public health activist in a country that does not recognize gay rights and criminalizes gay activity. In October 2016, he won an award from a New York human rights organization that published a photo of him and exposed his work.
“The community was calling for my execution, so I had to flee. I had a U.S. visa, and that was the only travel document I had to travel with,” Okporo said.
Okporo said his time in detention put him in a deep depression.
The rooms in Elizabeth, he said, are not private. Though there is a “privacy wall” inside showers and toilets, a person can still see what others are doing.
“I got alone. Lonely. … I’ve never been in that kind of isolation before. You are instructed on what to do and what not to do. And they are giving you food to eat, whether you like it or not, you just do it,” he said.
Not knowing the outcome of his case also added to his anxiety.
“If I lose, I would be returning to my country. If I win, I would be released. Where I would be released? I was depressed because my family … I do not have communications because my family do not accept me because of my sexual orientation,” he said.
Okporo said that besides the volunteer visitation program, he found a way out in books and meditation.
“I love reading. I increased my passion for reading by always going to the library and picking up books to read,” he said. “Even [though] my body was incarcerated, my body was free because I was able to go through a day-to-day activity of how to meditate and get a grip of my mind.”
Okporo was granted asylum.
The American Friends Service Committee, which represents immigrants held in New Jersey detention facilities pro bono, reports that between February 2015 and September 2016 it represented 80 asylum seekers. Of those, 40 received asylum. All remained in detention while their claims were adjudicated.
Okporo will be eligible to apply for legal permanent resident status in one year. But he has already begun his new life in America. With First Friends’ help, he has gotten three jobs.
“I produced a cookbook,” he said proudly, “which featured 40 refugees from different countries around the world.”