Women with Disabilities
Mentally Ill and in Immigration Limbo
Twice the immigration judge asked the woman’s name. Twice she gave it: Xiu Ping Jiang. But he chided her, a Chinese New Yorker, for answering his question before the court interpreter had translated it into Mandarin.
Ms. Jiang’s sisters, Yun, left, and Yu, who both live in New York, have been fighting to have her freed and have watched her condition deteriorate in jail. “I’m afraid my sister will commit suicide in the detention,” said Yun, who said Ms. Jiang was too ill to recognize her when she visited in February.
“Ma’am, we’re going to do this one more time, and then I’m going to treat you as though you were not here,” the immigration judge, Rex J. Ford, warned the woman last year at her first hearing in Pompano Beach, Fla. He threatened to issue an order of deportation that would say she had failed to show up.
She was a waitress with no criminal record, no lawyer and a history of attempted suicide. Her reply to the judge’s threat, captured by the court transcript, was in imperfect English. “Sir, I not — cannot go home,” she said, referring to China, which her family says she fled in 1995 after being forcibly sterilized at 20. “If I die, I die America.”
The judge moved on. “The respondent, after proper notice, has failed to appear,” he said for the record. And as she declared, “I’m going to die now,” he entered an order deporting her to China, and sent her back to the Glades County immigration jail.
That exchange, and her bleak experience in the immigration enforcement system, have come to light only through a fluke. Ms. Jiang happens to bear the same name as the ex-wife of Jiverly Wong, the United States citizen from Vietnam who fatally shot 13 people in April at an immigration services center in Binghamton, N.Y. As reporters tried to find the ex-wife, a database search for her name turned up court records about Ms. Jiang, the waitress.
Now 35, she has spent more than a year in jail, often in solitary confinement, sinking deeper into the mental illness that makes it impossible for her either to fight deportation or to obtain the travel documents needed to make it happen, according to a pending habeas corpus petition that seeks her release. It contends that she is suicidal, emaciated and deprived of proper medical treatment.
Had she been the Xiu Ping Jiang linked to a mass killer, her story would have made instant news around the world. Instead, she is a kind of Internet-era doppelganger, lost in one of the dark places of immigration law, where the only life at stake may be her own.
“I’m afraid my sister will commit suicide in the detention,” said her older sister, Yun, 37, who found Ms. Jiang too ill to recognize her when she visited the jail in February.
Ms. Jiang’s journey — from a village in China to restaurants in Brooklyn to a bare jail cell in South Florida in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement — illustrates the vulnerability of the mentally ill in the immigration system, advocates say.
“It’s a really stark, really dire issue, and it’s a growing problem,” said Sunita Patel, a lawyer at the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York who is part of an international working group of legal advocates and mental health providers seeking more protective rules. No one keeps count of such cases, but she added that “with all these enforcement measures being put into place by ICE, more and more people with mental illness are being put into the detention system. And sometimes these people disappear.”
Federal immigration officials said they could not comment on an individual case. But Elaine Komis, a spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Immigration Review, which oversees the nation’s immigration courts, said there were no rules for determining competency in deportation proceedings, and no way to ensure representation for a mentally ill person facing deportation.
“There is no right to government-paid representation in immigration court,” Ms. Komis said in a statement, “so no attorney is appointed when a respondent is believed to be incompetent.”
The nation’s immigration detention practices are under a comprehensive review ordered by Janet Napolitano, the secretary of homeland security, said a spokesman for the agency, Richard Rocha, adding, “ICE recognizes the need to address mental health issues among its detainees.”
The exact nature of Ms. Jiang’s illness is unknown, and immigration authorities would not release her medical records, even to her lawyers, saying she had refused to sign a privacy release. Her two sisters, who live in New York, describe her as a sweet, quiet woman whose mind broke under the strain of life as an illegal immigrant seeking asylum.
She was traveling to Florida to start a job at a Chinese restaurant in December 2007 when immigration agents arrested her at a Greyhound bus station in West Palm Beach on suspicion that she was in the country without a visa.
She was luckier than many mentally ill detainees. After Judge Ford issued an order of deportation in January 2008, Ms. Jiang’s older sister, now a United States citizen, hired a lawyer who managed to have it overturned by the Board of Immigration Appeals last May. But Ms. Jiang had to face the same judge in July, and by then, after half a year in jail, her symptoms of mental illness had become so severe that she was unable or unwilling to communicate with the lawyer. He withdrew from the case.
Email from: Maria Karagiozakis
By: By NINA BERNSTEIN