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Death by Homeland Security #3: The Disappeared

From Nina Bernstein and Margot Williams, The New York Times (2009-04-02): Immigrant Detainee Dies, and a Life Is Buried, Too:

The hand-scrawled letter from a New Jersey jail was urgent. An immigration detainee had died that day, Sept. 9, 2005, a fellow inmate wrote in broken English, describing chest pains and pleas for medical attention that went unheeded until too late.

Death … need to be investigated, he urged a local group that corresponded with foreigners held for deportation at the jail, the Monmouth County Correctional Institute in Freehold. We care very much because that can happen to anyone of us.

Yet like a message in a bottle tossed from a distant shore, even the fact of the detainee's death was soon swept away.

Inquiries by the local group were rebuffed by jail officials. Complaints forwarded to the Department of Homeland Security were logged, then forgotten. And when pressure from Congress and the news media compelled Immigration and Customs Enforcement to produce the first list of people who had died in their custody, the Freehold case was not on it.

The difficulty of confirming the very existence of the dead man, Ahmad Tanveer, 43, a Pakistani New Yorker, shows how death can fall between the cracks [sic! –R.G.] in immigration detention, the rapidly growing patchwork of more than 500 county jails, profit-making prisons and federal detention centers where half a million noncitizens were held during the last year while the government tried to deport them.

… Even now, most questions about Mr. Tanveer are unanswered, including just who he was and why he had been detained. The rescue of his death from oblivion took a rare mix of chance, vigilance by a few citizen activists, litigation by the civil liberties union and several months of inquiry by The Times. Even as the newspaper confirmed Mr. Tanveer's death with jail officials, and tracked his body's path from a Freehold morgue to the cargo hold of an airplane at Kennedy Airport, immigration authorities maintained that they could find no documents showing such a person was ever detained, or died in their custody.

Not until March 20, in response to a new request by The Times under the Freedom of Information Act, did the agency release an internal e-mail message acknowledging that the death had been overlooked. It issued a corrected list that now includes him — his first and last names transposed — among 90 people who died in immigration custody between Oct. 7, 2003, and Feb. 7, 2009.

… In Mr. Tanveer's case, efforts to draw public scrutiny were exceptional, yet went nowhere. The scrawled note by his fellow detainee, a Nigerian who garbled the dead man's name as Ahmed Tender, reached citizen activists at the New Jersey Civil Rights Defense Committee, who were unable to confirm it. Other complaints that Mr. Tanveer did not receive proper care separately reached a former member of the group, Jean Blum, a disabled Holocaust survivor who had continued corresponding with dozens of detainees from her home in Paterson, N.J., even though she could barely afford the postage.

I am very, very aware of the issues that involve displaced people, said Ms. Blum, 73, who was a child when she and her parents, Polish Jews, fled the Nazis. I could not turn my back, because that is my history.

Ms. Blum forwarded a packet of correspondence about the death to the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general by Sept. 20, 2005, seeking an investigation. But within weeks, documents show, the matter was simply passed for internal inquiry to the immigration agency, which is part of Homeland Security, with the notation that it need not bother to report back its findings.

Years after Mr. Tanveer's death, the scrawled note about his heart attack came to the attention of the A.C.L.U., and its lawyers noticed that no such name appeared on the first government list of 66 people published by The Times in 2008. The union added the name to its lawsuit, and eventually obtained the paper trail on what Ms. Blum had sent the government.

The union learned that the inspector general's office had written up a synopsis of the allegations for investigation by the immigration agency, saying that Ahmad Tander, a Pakistani detainee housed at the Monmouth jail, had died from a heart attack whose symptoms were obvious, severe and ignored until it was too late, amid conditions of neglect and indifference to medical needs.

But when the A.C.L.U. pressed for more, government lawyers said no further records could be found.

Early this year, The Times called a spokeswoman for the Monmouth County Sheriff, who confirmed the death and gave the name as Tanver — later correcting the spelling to Tanveer.

In names transcribed from a foreign alphabet, such variations often pose a problem of identification. But the facts matched: Mr. Tanveer had arrived at the jail in immigration custody on Aug. 12, 2005, and on Sept. 9 was taken by ambulance to CentraState Medical Center in Freehold, where he died, the spokeswoman, Cynthia Scott, said. Under the jail's federal contract, she said, nothing more could be disclosed.

A CentraState spokesman initially denied that such a patient had died at the hospital. Later the medical record was found misfiled, and the spokesman, James M. Goss, confirmed the man's death at age 43. But, citing privacy laws and policy, he declined to answer other questions about the case, including what had happened to the body.

In New Jersey, as in many states, autopsy reports are private. But the county morgue confirmed that an autopsy had been performed. Eventually, two details were shared: the name of the Queens funeral home that picked up the body for burial on Sept. 12, and the fact that the autopsy report was sent two months later to Mark Stokes, an official in the New York office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Yet for more than three years since, the tallies and testimony that the agency submitted to Congress about detainee deaths have not included the Tanveer case.

In January 2009, equipped with confirmation, The Times again requested documents in Mr. Tanveer's death. President Obama had just directed federal agencies to err on the side of transparency in releasing records to the public. But a Freedom of Information officer soon said she was stymied: Immigration record-keepers told her no documents could be located without the dead man's date of birth or eight-digit alien registration number.

And the body? The director of the funeral home, Coppola-Migliore in Corona, Queens, said Mr. Tanveer's New York relatives had it flown to Pakistan for burial, using Pakistan International Airlines. But the funeral director declined to identify the relatives without their permission and said they had not returned phone calls. And the Pakistani Consulate had no record of the case.

Also futile was a search for witnesses among fellow detainees, many since deported. The Nigerian detainee who wrote the urgent letter, an ailing diabetic, was later released pending a deportation hearing. According to social workers at the Queens-based charity that was his last known contact, he is now a homeless fugitive, lost in the streets of New York.

Victoria L. Allred, chief of staff in the financial office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, wrote in an internal e-mail message March 4 that the death had not been discovered until after the chart omitting it had been submitted to Congress for the latest subcommittee hearing, March 3. I apologize for the discrepancy, she wrote.

Yet as of Thursday, immigration authorities still have not released records on Mr. Tanveer's detention or death, which they attribute to occlusive coronary atherosclerosis, nor have they addressed the complaint that his heart attack went untreated in the jail for more than two hours.

On the expanded list, he is the only detainee with no birth date. And in the e-mail message acknowledging the death, his alien registration number has been redacted — to protect his privacy, the government said.

— Nina Bernstein and Margot Williams, The New York Times (2009-04-02): Immigrant Detainee Dies, and a Life Is Buried, Too

Ahmad Tanveer was abducted, caged, deliberately denied medical care and left to die in jail, and then disappeared by the United States federal government’s bordercrats and their hired thugs, who have gone up and down the chain of command denying, declining, misfiling and deliberately blocking disclosure of information about the case at every turn. They haven’t done a damned thing to investigate this man’s murder and they’ve did their best for years to make sure that nobody ever found out much of anything about it. The Times deserves a great deal of credit for doggedly investigating, and ultimately exposing, what has been going on in la Migra’s special prison system. But there’s a deep problem with passing it off as a matter of some poor shmoe falling between the cracks of a patchwork system of government immigration jails — as if this were a matter of disorganization or bureaucratic inefficiency — rather than what it is, an act of administrative murder, followed by a campaign of repeated stonewalling and cover-ups, under the excuse of Homeland Security, or on the outrageous claim that they are doing it out of concern for the privacy of their own victim. Not just in this one case, but over, and over again, to God knows how many people:

We still do not know, and we cannot know, if there are other deaths that have never been disclosed by ICE, or that ICE itself knows nothing about, said Tom Jawetz, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, which has been battling in court for months to obtain government records on all detention deaths, including the Freehold case and those named on the first government list, obtained by The New York Times under the Freedom of Information Act and published last year.

We believe we have accounted for every single detainee death, Kelly Nantel, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said last week, adding that a death in March was promptly reported to Congress under a policy directive from Dora Schriro, the new administration's special adviser on detention.

Yet even the latest list, which Ms. Nantel called comprehensive, thorough, is missing a known death from 2008: that of Ana Romero Rivera, a 44-year-old Salvadoran cleaning woman who was found hanged last August in an isolation cell in a county jail in Frankfort, Ky., where she was awaiting deportation. Federal officials now disagree whether she was legally in their custody when she died.

There are unverified reports that other detainees may have died unnamed and uncounted. At the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center in Miami, for example, directors cite a letter in late July 2007 from a detainee who described an 18-year-old Haitian woman, Mari Rosa, coughing up blood for hours without medical attention at the Glades County Jail in Moore Haven, Fla. The letter said she fell to the ground, had no pulse when she was finally taken to the medical unit and was never brought back, adding, The detainees think she is dead.

The center has been unable to confirm what happened to that woman, said Susana Barciela, its policy director.

… As Congress and the news media brought new scrutiny to the issue, several detention deaths have highlighted problems with medical care and accountability. In one, a Chinese computer engineer's extensive cancer and fractured spine went undiagnosed at a Rhode Island jail until shortly before he died, despite his pleas for help. In another, records show a Guinean tailor who suffered a skull fracture in a New Jersey jail was left in isolation without treatment for more than 13 hours.

— Nina Bernstein and Margot Williams, The New York Times (2009-04-02): Immigrant Detainee Dies, and a Life Is Buried, Too

Representative Zoe Lofgren of the state of California, is shocked — shocked! — to find that such a thing would be going on in the government’s special immigration prisons:

How can you overlook a guy who died in your custody? asked Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat who has presided over two subcommittee hearings dealing with care and deaths in detention, battling unsuccessfully for full disclosure from immigration officials. Did they forget other people? Was it an isolated, single error, or was it something more sinister?

— Nina Bernstein and Margot Williams, The New York Times (2009-04-02): Immigrant Detainee Dies, and a Life Is Buried, Too

But the answer to these questions are easy. This case — all these cases, and more — happened because of a single error. But not an isolated one. The system itself is the error — there is no possible way to enforce immigration controls without creating special, parallel systems of imprisonment and administrative courts in which basic civil liberties and basic principles of due process are eliminated. There is no possible way for the government to go around trying to detect and exile undocumented immigrants without reversing basic components of due process, like the presumption of innocence. Any system of immigration documentation necessarily places the burden on the documented person to prove to the government’s satisfaction, by producing their documentation, that they have a right to exist where they do — rather than putting the burden on the government to prove that they do not. (The government will no doubt object that they can’t prove a negative. Of course they can’t, which is why they can’t implement a system of border laws within the bounds of anything resembling due process. Which is an argument against border laws, not against due process.) Any system of border laws whatever will always produce special prisons and special courts for the administration of the federal Fugitive Alien Acts, in which those imprisoned and judged will be stripped of basic privileges or immunities, and denied any realistic hope of recourse for crimes committed against them.

When Anarchists speak about a society based on consent, and when we say that we can settle any genuine issue of socio-economic coordination and community life through consensual, grassroots processes of negotiation and free association or dissociation — without government armies, government borders, or government prisons — we are constantly accused, by some sanctimonious know-it-all who presumes that repeating statist chestnuts amounts to hard-nosed realism and some special expertise in history and in the problems of life, of being utopians, whose ideas have no hope of practical workability. But as a matter of fact, we Anarchists have nothing on those who imagine that there can be some right way to run statist institutions, with the right policies in place and with virtuous and competent people to administer them, that will somehow avoid the predictable results that have happened in every other government institution like it. It takes the most naive sort of utopianism, and the cruelest sort of killing negligence, to go on pretending, in the face of both logic and historical evidence, that there is some possible way for government to construct systems of special tribunals in which people are treated as legal non-persons, without bringing along what this sort of thing has always and everywhere produced — effectively unchecked power by the government over its prisoners, who are granted no rights and given no recourse, and, what always follows unchecked power, rampant brutality, negligence, lying, death, and disappearance. There is no way to do it, no way at all. You cannot enforce border laws without constructing a system like that, and you cannot construct a system like that without, eventually, to a greater or a lesser degree, repeating every brutality and every horror that has always come along with every system of legal black holes, special security courts, and concentration camps that the world has ever known.

See also:

Alexander Hamilton and the birth of American state capitalism

The most recent issue of the Boston Review has an interesting article from William Hogeland on Alexander Hamilton and his recently-acquired fan club among the court intellectuals of the Beltway Consensus — with Hamilton’s recent biographers and neo-conservativecreepy spendthrift fascist David Brooks at the fore. The article is almost entirely right-on; here’s one of the most important parts, on the political economy that was brought forth in the early Constitutional period, through the ministrations of the newly empowered central government:

David Brooks, for his part, embraces the thrust of Hamilton's finance plan, writing that Congress's decision to fund the federal debt at Hamilton's urging formed the basis of the fluid capital markets that are today the engine of world capitalism. The quick-and-dirty textbook version is that Hamilton gave the country sound credit. What that means is rarely made explicit: the first treasury secretary found ways to support, at all costs, the federal bondholders whom he and Morris had been frustrated in supporting in the 1780s. In 1791 Hamilton finally got the U.S. Congress to commit to paying reliable interest on its debt instruments, halting both their face-value depreciation and the free-for-all speculation in them, making them articles of rational trade in high-finance marketplaces. (Following British models, Hamilton also used proceeds of the U.S. Post Office to create a sinking fund; such funds were dedicated to paying down each issuance of a public debt, making bonds reliable.) Hamilton's idea, bold and creative, was to let the government get its hands on easy money by letting bondholders and traders grow American fortunes lending that money.

Brooks also associates Hamilton's authorship of modern capitalism with what historians call assumption: Hamilton persuaded Congress to assume the states' war debts in the federal one, thus swelling the federal obligation to massive proportions. But that idea wasn't original with Hamilton, and by overlooking its history Brooks and other Hamiltonians obscure its purposes. Robert Morris too had wanted the Confederation Congress to assume state debts, placing all public debt in federal hands and making it so big that federal taxes would have to be levied to pay interest on it. That dream came true when the U.S. Congress, having agreed to assume state debts, ran up a deficit, as Hamilton was happy to report in December of 1790.

A new tax, Hamilton told Congress, was the only way to solvency. He proposed not only expanding duties on imports (the old, embattled impost had finally been passed in the first session) but far more significantly, he urged Congress to impose the first federal tax on an American product. Just as Morris had hoped, assumption of state debts had become the wedge for opening the purses of the people, enforcing domestic federal taxation to support federal bondholders. In fact, passing a federal domestic tax (on distilled liquor, a fact that has helped obscure its real purpose) was so important that in the first funding proposal he submitted to Congress Hamilton appended a fully drafted bill. It was characteristically Hamiltonian (and reminiscent of health-care-reform-era Hillary Clinton), replete with distilling and tax-policy minutiae and overwhelmingly, even patronizingly, thorough, with every loophole closed, every question pre-answered, every problem sure to be caused by Congress's financial ineptitude solved. The bill was controversial, and Hamilton's patience must have been tried when Congress, seeming to bumble, passed funding and assumption yet ignored the whiskey tax—the brilliant law that would pay for them. But he was becoming a politico. In reporting the deficit, he calmly referred Congress back to the tax law he'd already written for them almost a year earlier. They were politicos too. They passed it—now that they had to—almost unmodified.

The structure of that tax sharply qualifies assertions made by Brooks and others that Hamilton wanted government power to enhance opportunity, mobility, and democracy. The reasons Hamilton gave Congress for going beyond a foreign impost and imposing domestic taxation are telling, both for what he said and for what he left unsaid. In the same 1790 report Hamilton reminded Congress that merchants, naturally, paid import duties, and that since merchants had always been the class most committed to American nationhood, taxing them further would be onerous and disaffecting; hence the need for a new tax not on imports but on a domestic product. What he did not explicitly point out was that the merchant class was also the bondholding class: they'd long been nationalists because federal power—the very kind Hamilton was wielding now—had long seemed to be where their interest lay. Today we might expect investors to be content with steady, tax-free income (there was, of course, no income tax). For Hamilton, shoring up and concentrating bondholders' wealth meant paying that income with funds drawn not from the small bondholding class but from a tax collected from the large class of people who would never own a bond. And he structured the tax around aspects of the distilling process itself, so that big-time distillers (industrialists, members of the bondholding class) would be charged a lower tax while small-time producers (people engaged in a wide variety of work as farmers and artisans, with whiskeymaking often their sole source of cash and credit) would be charged a substantially higher tax, in many cases a crushing one. It was no accident. The bill was modeled on a series of whiskey taxes passed by British governments. Driving small and occasional producers out of business served imperial economic aims of efficiency and consolidation. In the same year that Congress passed Hamilton's whiskey tax, the Irish Parliament stopped merely dis-incentivizing small distilling, and made it illegal to operate a still of less than 500-gallon capacity.

Hamilton wanted to turn the country into an efficient global competitor. As he would argue before Congress in his famous 1791 Report on Manufactures (which was far less successful than his funding plan but just as eager to stun all comers with its depth of research on hemp, nails, hats—wool hats, fur hats, and also fur-and-wool hats—and so on), labor power should not be dissipated in small, generalist farms and one-man artisan shops but efficiently marshaled, stabilized, and deployed on commercial farms and in factory towns like the one he founded in Paterson, New Jersey. And of course he wanted to use federal power to achieve that national vision.

The effect of the whiskey tax was precisely to render American distilling efficient through consolidation bordering on cartelization: even as the tax threatened to ruin small producers, Hamilton busily restructured army buying practices to make it impossible for small distillers to sell to army commissaries. In western Pennsylvania, where small distillers had managed to gain an economic toehold, Hamilton went even further: he made the region's richest, largest-scale distiller the federal tax collector. Paid both a federal salary and a commission on what he took from his less successful neighbors, and charged with enforcing the federal tax that directly benefited his business, this distiller/collector had close relatives—again, federally commissioned, correspondents of both Hamilton and Washington—in the commissary office of the local army post. Business was sewn up.

Brooks routinely characterizes Hamilton's use of federal power as intended to spur competition and furnish opportunity. But the control of business near the Ohio headwaters by a government-connected family and its pals was a direct consequence of Hamilton's policy, and it was anything but unintended. Government is really bad at rigging or softening competition, Brooks has written by way of praising Hamilton's economic policies. Yet the rigging inherent in Hamilton's tax aggravated ordinary people's existing problems. Farmers and artisans who were losing their weak grip on economic well-being and falling into foreclosure, as federally connected commercial farmers, Eastern real-estate speculators, and entrepreneurs in brick, glass, iron, and other rising industries—the sort Hamilton always said he wanted to promote—bought up more and more of the best Western land. Descendants of the pioneers who had cleared the land found themselves working as day laborers in the factories of their creditors, which was anything but a bleak outcome by Hamilton's reckoning.

Thus did the first federal domestic tax—linchpin to Hamilton's finance plan, culmination of nationalists' decade-long efforts to unite the country, first step in making the American economy a global competitor—operate regressively, comprehensively, and deliberately. Its avowed purpose of wealth concentration and industry consolidation was intended to restructure the country along the modern American lines now hymned by so many neo-Hamiltonians. Such extreme and systemic results can't be what Jason Bordoff and others at the Hamilton Project mean to support by invoking Hamilton's legacy. But it is what Morris meant by opening the people's purses, and it's what Congress made law, at Hamilton's behest, in 1791.

In his June 8 column, Brooks pits his Hamiltonians against modern populists who want, he says, to fundamentally rewrite the rules and obstruct policies they see as benefiting only the rich. He would brand as populists the many former foot soldiers of the Revolution who rose up against the whiskey tax—the so-called whiskey rebels. To them, American independence now seemed to have been gained for the exclusive benefit of a military-industrial cartel run by and for the privileged and staffed by the well-connected. Western Pennsylvania populists wanted a fair shot at modern America too. They wanted access to cash and credit. They wanted to grow their businesses. They were not anti-tax. They were against taxes that straitjacket markets, restrict opportunity, reduce competition, punish small operators, cripple local economies, and offer government cronies bonanzas at the direct expense of other citizens. Most important, they were against what they called taxes that don't operate in proportion to property.

At least that's what they said they were against, in published resolutions, letters, and petitions. Brookhiser and Chernow caricature them as drunk hillbillies (Brookhiser) whom scholars study merely because they are colorful (Chernow). But the essential fact remains that, during the nation's formative years, the explicit idea that an essential promise of republican democracy lies in fostering opportunities for economic advancement and upward mobility is found not in Hamilton's funding plan, but in the resolutions of the ordinary people who became whiskey rebels.

So how have neo-Hamiltonians managed to remake Hamilton in their own image, diminishing his outrageous charisma and ruthless political intelligence in the process?

One way today's Hamiltonians connect their hero's economics to the American Dream is through the needle's eye of his disadvantaged background and remarkable success. Hamilton came from nothing, Brooks wrote in his New York Times Magazine piece, and spent his political career trying to create a world in which as many people as possible could replicate his amazing success." Or, as one of the PBS talking heads informs viewers, Hamilton believed that "if you worked hard, you should get ahead.

It's more likely that Hamilton believed exceptional, bright boys like him should erupt like meteors across the night sky. Blending creative genius with an almost mad degree of thoroughness and tenacity, he strove to dominate everyone he encountered, a quality that brought enormous success but also marred his life and may have shortened it. The idea that Hamilton spent his career trying to create conditions for replicating such a rise seems fantastic. One searches his letters and public statements in vain for thoughtful reflection on ordinary families' economic struggles or respect for their goals and hopes for their children's betterment. He is unconcerned about using government power to encourage the rise of laborer's descendants and would not have related upward mobility to democracy—a dirty word to Hamilton.

Brooks cites remarks from Report on Manufactures as evidence of Hamilton's hope that people would advance socially by moving from agrarian scatteredness to industrial centralization. When all the different kinds of industry obtain in a community, Hamilton argued, each individual can find his proper element. He also defined as a goal of industrial policy to cherish and stimulate the activity of the human mind, by multiplying the objects of enterprise. Where many founders were farmers and planters, Hamilton (like Franklin and Samuel Adams) was an urbanite, and he made an appealing case for the creative synergy to be found in cities. He certainly wanted people mobile enough to get off the farm, out of the artisan shop, and into the mill, and he had a forward-looking fondness, at once emotional and practical, of encouraging meritocracy over aristocracy in responsible government positions.

But it is a feat of intellectual acrobatics to ascribe to Hamilton, on the basis of these remarks, a broad policy of encouraging, much less sustaining, widespread upward social mobility through hard work among succeeding American generations. For Hamilton, the hard work/get ahead equation, which revivalists want to call a democratic legacy, applied only to the sort of people he deemed it wise to encourage. He had cogent national and financial reasons for carefully dismantling the few ways—which already involved manufacturing and selling—that people had of getting ahead. They involved consolidating land, money, opportunity, and power in the West, while obstructing both mobility and democracy. He was explicit about this.

Chernow, straining to detect Hamilton's sympathy for the impossible difficulties faced by the debtor class, misreads a minor Federalist essay, number six. He suggests that Hamilton felt sorry for Daniel Shays, leader of a 1787 debtor uprising in Massachusetts, arguing that federal assumption of state debts was intended to relieve small-farming debtors. While it's true that Hamilton objected to vacillations from leniency to aggressiveness in Massachusetts finance policy, his essay as a whole makes clear his disdain for the vaunting ambition and criminal tendencies of all such as Shays, on whom he lays personal blame for the anti-creditor movement sweeping the western part of the country, the real basis and wide scope of which Hamilton always impatiently declined to acknowledge.

To the extent that he thought about it at all, Hamilton wanted people to stop talking nonsense about their own economic aspirations and get ahead his way and his way alone, by becoming efficiently organized laborers and farm workers for the financiers and industrialists. If people wouldn't do that, he'd make them.

— William Hogeland (2007), Inventing Alexander Hamilton, in Boston Review (November/December 2007)

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