At the time, Carty
never imagined he'd be shipped to seven detention facilities around the country. or that he'd help organize hunger strikes in South Texas' Port Isabel Detention center
, 2,000 miles from his
Or that he
would inspire an Amnesty International investigation into human rights abuses by the Federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
But immigrant justice in the U.S. is full of surprises.
Carty was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1970.
Haitianborn parents worked there as middle-school teachers.
The following year, they moved to the United States, where they also taught.
Carty's mother became a U.S. citizen.
was 16, she
petitioned for her
son to become a citizen as well.
The immigration agency, Carty
says, did not process his
paperwork before he
At that point, he
needed to start his
citizenship claim over as an adult.
For one reason and another, like many legal residents, he
didn't know how much it might matter someday.
Like many legal residents, Carty
had the same constitutional rights as a citizen by virtue of his
legal status and longtime residence.
left prison in Maine after serving two years for trafficking and conspiracy to distribute cocaine, he
found out differently.
Immigration-reform measures passed in 1996 made Carty subject to mandatory detention and deportation by ICE
had served his
"I figured I could get bond and work to reverse the drug charges," says Carty
, who claimed all along he
Under that policy, Carty
probably would have been granted a bond and been given an immigration court date to determine whether he
would be deported.
But critics of "catch and release" had long complained that too many immigrants were skipping out on their court dates.
As the 2006 debate over immigration reform grew toxic in congress, the Bush administration announced a new policy designed to placate reform opponents: "catch and detain."
The number of detention beds across the country quickly multiplied as the Department of Homeland Security tripled its budget for detention and deportation to $1.9 billion in 2007.
began detaining and deporting more legal residents for misdemeanors and crimes of "moral turpitude," a long list of offenses that runs the gamut from shoplifting to murder.
By 2008, the year ICE deemed Carty
a criminal alien, the agency had become the largest jailer in the nation, housing more than 378,000 immigrants in more than 300 private or federally run facilities.
The criminalization of immigration has become so prevalent that it has its own buzzword: "crimmigration."
Like other legal residents swept up in the crack down, Carty
found that once he
landed in the immigrant detention system, he
had no constitutional right to court-appointed counsel.
was herded into a small courtroom in Maine with five other men for his
first deportation hearing: a videoconference with a judge that took a few minutes per detainee.
"I didn't have an attorney," he says.
"I had no documents on my immigration case history.
I'd never been to Haiti in my life, and Congo didn't recognize me as a citizen."
was put in leg irons, with handcuffs anchored to his
waist, and marched onto a government-chartered plane with other immigrants-some undocumented, some legal residents like himself.
They were flown to Massachusetts, where Carty
was locked up in the second of seven detention facilities he'd experience.
Carty's story is hardly unusual: on average, 52 percent of ICE detainees-whether legal residents or illegal immigrants-are transferred at least once before they are released or deported, according to a study by the nonprofit Transactional Records Access
Each time Carty was transferred to a new detention center, his
fiancée and family were unaware of his
whereabouts until he
gained phone privileges.
Each transfer also meant several additional weeks in detention while he waited for a new immigration judge to set a court hearing.
"It was very dehumanizing," says Carty
"We have our lives invested here and have equity in this country, but there is no consideration for us at all."
IN DECEmbER 2008, Carty
was shipped to his
fifth detention center: Port Isabel, 24 miles northeast of Brownsville.
"It seemed like we were being set up," Carty
Taking matters into his own hands, Carty started studying immigration law in Port Isabel's meager law library.
An official in charge of the library noticed his
abilities and hired Carty
at $1 a day to work there.
began to help other immigrants with their cases, including a man from Eritrea who'd been denied political asylum and was about to be deported.
"I saw his
face the day he
got the order," Carty
had the look of imminent death on his
had been tortured for two years in Eritrea, and he
really thought he
was going to die."
helped him challenge the deportation; the man was later released on a parole bond.
The more Carty studied immigration law, the more he
realized that many people were stuck in detention because they were poor and had no access to a lawyer.
A recent report by Amnesty International found that 84 percent of immigrants in U.S. detention have no legal representation-either because they can't afford a lawyer or because they can't find one in the remote areas where most detention centers are located.
remained at Port Isabel
for seven months.
The detainees there, he
says, were unusually desperate. one man from El Salvador, he
says, had been detained for eight years while fighting deportation.
and a few others tried to reach out to local attorneys to help such detainees.
They attracted some media attention, but nothing changed.
One day, Carty
was approached by two detainees who wanted to start a hunger strike.
"We felt we had no other recourse," he
"We were ready to stop eating to let people know how serious things were."
Last April, at least 100 men at Port Isabel
participated in that initial hunger strike.
didn't eat for a week.
relented after officials threatened to take away his
access to the law library.
"I would have crawled to that library to work on my case," he
After the hunger strike had been broken-with its "ringleaders" transferred to other detention centers by ICE-Carty
contacted Amnesty International.
The human rights nonprofit had just released a report, "Jailed Without Justice," which found, among other problems, that many immigrants and legal residents were being held unlawfully in mandatory detention.
persuaded Amnesty to come to Port Isabel
On the second day of the Amnesty investigators' visit, Carty
was preparing for his
interview with them when two guards told him he
was being transferred to Louisiana.
tried to get to the phone to notify Amnesty, but was beaten by the guards.
"They made an example of me," he
"They sent a very clear message that this is what will happen if you do something like setting up a meeting with Amnesty International."
was transferred that day.
The next month he
was indicted by a federal grand jury on two counts of "assaulting, resisting, opposing, impeding, intimidating or interfering with" the two Port Isabel
guards "in the performance of their official duties."
self-taught legal training to petition for a writ of habeas corpus and force his
accusers to justify their charges.
argued that because neither Haiti nor Congo would accept him as a citizen, he
could not be deported. on Dec. 22, after 21 months in the immigrant detention system, Carty
was released when a judge granted his
returned briefly to Boston, where he
was reunited with his
family and fiancée.
is back in South Texas
to stand trial for allegedly assaulting the Port Isabel
What it doesn't show, Hajjar says, is Carty
assaulting the guards.
While awaiting trial in February, Carty
joined several Texas nonprofits in launching a "Dignity Not Detention" campaign to raise awareness about mandatory detention policies, lack of legal representation for detainees, and physical and verbal abuse in ICE facilities.
Download EmbedEmbed this video on your site Former Port Isabel detainee and hunger striker, Rama Carty, speaks with N.Y.-based reporter Renee Feltz about his ongoing human rights activism.