Garífuna Mothers Denounce ICE’s ‘Modern Slavery’

The electronic ankle shackle that Ingrid Flowers was forced to wear caused her a serious infection. Her daughter Ingrid Hernández, stands by her side. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

The electronic ankle shackle that Ingrid Flowers was forced to wear caused her a serious infection. Her daughter Ingrid Hernández, stands by her side. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

As the wave of Garífuna mothers and children from Honduras, who came to New York in the spring of last year, continues, activists and religious leaders from the Bronx have taken community action to free the women who have been forced by ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) to wear electronic shackles. The Garífuna are a Central American ethnic group formed by descendants of African slaves and Carib and Arawak natives.

The immigration limbo faced by these women and ICE’s strict vigilance are little-known aspects of the recent Central American immigration experience, according to activists.

“This is a unique phenomenon. We haven’t seen anything like it in the last 30 years,” said Pablo Gómez, founder of the Honduran and Central American Parade in the Bronx.

Mirtha Colón, director of the Casa Yurumein community center, said that at the moment, there are 1,000 recently-arrived mothers in New York. Other destinations are Texas, New Orleans and Boston, although in smaller numbers.

The Iglesia Evangélica Española (Spanish Evangelical Church) in the Bronx gives sanctuary to 85 of the Garífuna women who wore ICE’s GPS ankle for as long as four months. The monitor was designed to locate the carrier in real time. After religious and community leaders pressed for more humane conditions for the women, the federal agency freed them of the shackles. However, the surveillance continues.

Melanie Jerónimo, 30, who crossed the border with her youngest daughter, must answer ICE’s monthly calls without delay as part of the surveillance condition. The program uses a voice-recognition system.

“They warned me that if I don’t answer the phone call for three months in a row, they will put the shackle back on,” said Jerónimo. “I do not want to go through that nightmare again. It is horrible to be seen by people as a criminal. They think that I did something very bad and shameful.”

Colón said that most of the newcomers are submitted to ICE’s vigilance 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

“Being monitored through cell phones produces an emotional devastation similar to the one caused by the shackle,” said the center director. “The stress is made worse by the fact that they are in immigration limbo. They do not know if they will be deported or not.”

ICE told El Diario that, as of March 26, 183 people are wearing the electronic shackle and 1,412 were monitored by phone for voice recognition. In total, 1,595 are under the agency’s Alternatives to Detention program.

The agency did not reveal how many of these people have serious crimes on their record or how many are being processed for deportation. They also declined to comment on the situation of the Garífuna mothers.

Lesbia Martínez , 35, said that her next court appointment will not be until 2019, and that she ignores what her current immigration status is.

“Many of us do not have a job because of this situation, and there is an enormous pressure to find money to pay the phone bill,” said Martínez. “But if we don’t pick up, the agents will come to our house, without a doubt.”

Gómez said that other churches in the area are assisting groups of between 60 and 80 mothers in similar conditions.

The device that Ingrid Flowers, 33, wore for four months caused her a serious ankle infection as well as leg cramps.

“I came fleeing Honduras because gangs burned my house down,” said Flowers, tearfully. “We mothers bring our children with us because the narcos recruit them by force.”

From chains to electronic monitoring

Drug-related violence and the indifference of Central American governments pushed Garífuna mothers and children to migrate. Here, the authorities’ use of electronic monitoring represents a new brand of slavery for a people forced to leave their homeland 218 years ago.

April 12 is Garífuna Settlement Day, which commemorates the day when the Garífuna were expelled by British colonizers from their native island of St. Vincent to Roatán, Honduras, and Belize.

Activists said that the survival of their community is not a chapter buried by history.

“It used to be iron chains; now it is ICE’s electronic shackles enslaving my people,” said Pablo Blanco, a young musician and activist, whose Garífuna grandfather arrived in New York in the 1950s. “Oppression and exile are as alive as is our cry for justice.”

The women of the Honduran Garífuna villages were also displaced by the territorial crisis brought about by the Zonas Especiales de Desarrollo Económico (Special Economic Development Zones), also known as “model cities,” a plan put in place by the government to facilitate ownership and exploitation of natural resources for foreign investors.

“This is the new exile in the name of economic development,” said Gómez.

The activist said that coyotes (smugglers) took advantage of the violence and the occupation of the land to lure the women into an uncertain journey.

“They fill the buses with people throughout Honduras with the promise of a 15-day trip for $3,000, but crossing ends up taking months and you end up paying up to $10,000,” said Gómez.

Neither the Honduran Consulate-General in New York nor the Honduran Embassy in Washington D.C. answered numerous phone calls made by El Diario to obtain their comments.

A ‘more humane’ option

GPS devices and voice recognition systems are part of the Intensive Supervision Appearance Program (ISAP) operated by Behavioral Interventions (BI), a private company under an exclusive contract with ICE.

In 2009, the federal agency gave BI a five-year contract. BI is an affiliate of The GEO Group, the second largest private correctional services provider, owning 32 percent of the market. The contract was renewed for five more years last November, and Congress assigned $90 million to fund its operations.

ICE justifies ISAP as a more humane and less costly alternative to incarceration. Their argument is based on a report, obtained by El Diario, stating that while 1.8 million immigrants are being processed for deportation, the agency finances a mere 34,000 detention beds.

Yuliza Guity, 33, a Garífuna mother who arrived in New York with two minors, said that before she was allowed in the U.S., the border patrol made her sign to her voluntary participation in ISAP.

“I didn’t know what those papers were or what they said. The surprise came during my first appointment with immigration. That’s when they put the shackle on me,” said Guity. “I had to connect the contraption to an electrical plug for two hours twice a day. It enslaved me; I couldn’t work and be independent.”

[According to the ICE report entitled “U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Alternatives to Detention (Revised),” issued February 4, 2015, “the contractor charges $0.17 a day per participant for telephonic monitoring and $4.41 for GPS monitoring. For Full-Service supervision, the contractor provides case management, as well as electronic monitoring, and charges an average of $8.37 a day per participant.”]

ICE’s report reveals the growth of this type of electronic surveillance in the country in the last few years: In 2010 8,591 people were submitted to ISAP, and in 2012 there were 17,524.

The Bronx, a Garífuna nation

Activists estimate that nearly 250,000 Garífunas from Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Belize currently live in New York City. Half of them live in the South Bronx, and the rest are in Brooklyn and Harlem.

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