Chucks Boniface waits in no particular hurry; he’s used to waiting. He passes the time with morning prayers and reams of paperwork, gathering his scant belongings and placing several collect calls to his lawyer that go unanswered. He skips dinner and the goodbyes. He changes out of his Virginia Beach Correctional Facility’s regulation orange jumpsuit (extra large) and into the street clothes he came with—black suede loafers, baggy black jeans, and a blue checkered, short-sleeved shirt. Boniface has lost 20 pounds while inside, and the clothes are now big enough to dwarf his 6-foot-2, 190-pound frame; he looks cane-thin. On this cloudless evening in mid-June, he doesn’t care what he looks like. He’s getting paroled.
Boniface isn’t sure what that means, only that he is leaving the prison in his lawyer’s rental car. After a transfer to the facility’s main hub, he finishes up his paperwork and keeps watch for the lawyer over the course of two hours. “You can wait inside,” a corrections officer instructs. “Hell no,” Boniface replies.
It is his first act of defiance since arriving in the United States on Oct. 2, 1998, and seeking political asylum from Sudan—the country of his birth—and Nigeria—the country he resided in for more than a decade but that didn’t want him. When Boniface was 6, his guardian, an uncle, was murdered during a political rally. He had nowhere to go; his mother was institutionalized, and he never knew his father. He was essentially an orphan—a status that informs his life to this day. He fled to Nigeria with a neighbor and her son. There, he grew up in relative quiet until his undocumented status started to become an issue with government officials. He spent his teen years hiding from refugee sweeps of the neighborhood. Eventually, Boniface was thrown out of school for his nationality and pressured into quitting his job because of his Christian faith. He decided he had to flee and thought he could find a place to stand—a place to exist—in America.
Boniface landed at Dulles Airport with a fake passport, no official documents, and no friends or family. He was immediately arrested and made a ward of Virginia’s prison system—one more small manifestation of Congress’ immigrant phobia and the country’s endless capacity for prisons and finding people to fill them.
The default position of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) in regard to asylum seekers is to view them as crooks. In the early ’90s, immigration became a hot-button issue for fervent right- and left-swingers like President Clinton. The INS was publicly assailed as an agency that cast a very small net with a lot of holes. In 1996, Congress passed immigration reforms that gave the INS a preferred option for American wannabes: incarceration. Even asylum seekers with sound reasons for leaving their homelands are now finding that they must jump over a very high bar.
When Boniface was picked up at the airport, he joined a booming detainee class. Crossing the border now meant instant jail time. He joined scores of immigrants locked away from the D.C. area; on the day I called in late June, the local INS district had 237 detainees in custody. Boniface spent the next eight months sitting through multiple interrogations and hearings with immigration officials. He never saw the country he had heard so much about, only brick walls and bars in the four Virginia jails he was shuttled between.
Even his parole is temporary. He is still waiting for a hearing in which a judge will decide if he stays or goes. And regardless of what the courts decide, he is confronted by an immutable fact: He has nowhere to go.
Living with that uncertainty, but finally outside, Boniface sits on the curb along James Madison Boulevard and breathes the fresh air. The sun is hot, the sky a bright postcard blue. Boniface can only go where he is told. He couldn’t locate Virginia Beach on a map if he tried.
It looks as if it’s going to be a while before anybody arrives to pick him up. Boniface just sits quietly. He knows how to be quiet.
Lawyer John Humphrey is gunning a rented dark-red four-door Ford Contour down Ferrell Parkway. There are four miles to go before he reaches the correctional facility, but traffic is thickening in front of him. It is nearing 6 p.m., and Nina Totenberg is on the car radio dissecting the latest conservative Supreme Court decisions. Humphrey knows the streets pretty well—his grandmother lived in nearby Suffolk, and he spent many a vacation on these roads. He has visited just about every roadside Stuckey’s and Cracker Barrel (he’s a regular) in the area. He just didn’t expect traffic coming into Virginia Beach at this hour. “I hope Chucks isn’t on the curb,” he jokes prophetically.
Humphrey, a boyish-looking 35, steps on it when he finally hits an open stretch of pavement. Even though he knows the roads, he is actually a recent arrival in Washington—he moved to Alexandria in December after graduating from law school at the University of Michigan and taking a job at the law firm Shearman & Sterling. Ironically, Boniface has “lived” here longer. Humphrey spends most of his days litigating the affairs of Fortune 500 companies. He rarely leaves the office and his endless boxes of files. He’s a wee bit intense.
This is Humphrey’s first asylum case and his fourth visit down I-95 to meet Boniface. He may be working pro bono, but he’s fully obsessed. Despite his current job, he loves a lost cause. A minister’s son from Sanford, N.C., (population 13,000), he spent much of his time during his college days at Duke organizing and protesting on behalf of various lefty causes. He was one of the first students ever jailed for protesting on Duke’s campus (at an anti-apartheid rally). As an intern at the American Civil Liberties Union’s Los Angeles office, he worked on ex-Black Panther Geronimo Pratt’s release. The pressure of college loans, plus a desire to litigate cases, eventually brought him to a big corporate firm in D.C. But he is still interested in that place where the law and politics intersect.
The parole is Humphrey’s first major victory on behalf of Boniface, but he doesn’t expect a big welcome. Boniface has been a well-mannered client, but it isn’t as though lawyer and client have connected beyond the business at hand. Humphrey hopes that Boniface will open up now that he is at large. Boniface has to produce a story detailed enough to convince immigration officials that his stay in the U.S. should be a permanent one.
Tonight, though, Humphrey, who is traveling with a legal assistant and me, just wants to create the kind of relationship that will eventually yield information he can build a case out of.
“One of the nice things about coming down here is I don’t have to talk about difficult things,” he bellows, above the whirl of the AC on high. “I don’t have to ask any questions except what he wants to do tomorrow, what he wants to eat for dinner.”
He speeds through the yellow lights. A billboard says the Virginia Lottery is up to $19 million.
By the time we pull into the quiet parking lot, Boniface is already bounding toward our car. We barely have time to get out and stretch before he appears. His whole body inflates: His hands are outstretched as if he’s palming invisible basketballs, and his face is taken up by a big grin. Things are looking up for everybody.
“I really appreciate it, man,” Boniface says to Humphrey in his characteristically sheepish tones, his brown eyes staring at the ground. He gives him a full-contact hug. He squeezes me, too. We are the only people he knows in the United States, his de facto family. I feel sleazy. I mean, I’m happy for him and all, but I just want a story.
The instant buoyancy quickly turns into a quiet moment. Boniface has said his piece, even though we all continue to peer expectantly into his face. He just stares hard at the ground and rubs the Contour’s hot hood with his fingers as if he’s making sure all this is real.
“This is my happy day,” he finally mumbles, mostly to himself.
Humphrey gives him an INS-issue identification card. It’s not a green card, which would allow him to work. Good for one year, the ID card has his name, his home country, his birth date, his new D.C. address, a list of rules to follow, and his “alien” number: 76-596-348. The number has become the most meaningful thing about him.
He tucks the ID into a small collection of biblical quotations, The Book of Hope, he took from prison. With Humphrey inside making sure the paperwork is finished, everyone is quiet. The only sound is the gravel and pebble, shuffling under Boniface’s feet. He finally feels uncomfortable enough with the silence to fill it.
“Damn,” he says in his deepest voice, sighing at the end of a sentence. “Sheee-it.” Boniface has learned a few new words in prison.
Emerging from the building, Humphrey returns with a question for Boniface: “Have you eaten?”
“I don’t worry about that,” Boniface asserts. Even though his main activity is answering questions—from the INS, from his lawyers, and from me—queries baffle him. Even dinner is a toughie. Humphrey, the expert on local greasy spoons, rattles off the options.
In the car, the asylum seeker finally stops him: “I want pizza.”
Humphrey knows a place. We head to Williamsburg for Pizzeria Uno. “I think the Uno will blow him away,” Humphrey claims, as if Boniface can’t hear his boast. Even in the small Contour, Boniface is hard to notice; he barely talks throughout the ride. He just stretches out in the front passenger seat, watching an alien landscape unfurl.
We hit Williamsburg and pass the “1776 Holiday Inn.” By the time we get to the Uno, it’s clear that it will “blow him away,” but maybe not in the way his lawyer thought. Boniface can’t parse the difference between Chicago-style and New York-style varieties, and he has never heard of mushrooms. It’s all very complicated, more complicated than it sounds. Veggie pizza hangs up on the mushroom issue. Barbecue chicken pizza is a mystery. Humphrey moves on to the “Chicago Classic.” It has sausage; Boniface knows about sausage. “I like sausage,” he exclaims triumphantly.
Then there are the appetizers, more foreign territory for Boniface. There is an item called “Chicken Thumbs”; this mystifies him no end. Humphrey explains slowly: Chicken breast parts served up Buffalo-wing style—I mean with, like, spicy barbecue sauce—they’re, um, spicy, Chucks. He’ll take an order of them and a Coke, too. Boniface smiles blankly at the perky waitress.
When Boniface talks, he talks only about the things he has learned in prison—hiphop and basketball. (He never played before.) “I am a good basketball player,” he brags. “I be dunking that sheee-it.”
We pile back into the car for the ride to D.C., to Boniface’s temporary home, a high school, where a Catholic priest is willing to house and feed him until his upcoming hearing. On the way, Humphrey spins the radio dial for the Knicks-Spurs championship game, per his client’s request.
Boniface sits in his seat not saying a word. Within an hour, he starts fading into sleep. It’s nearing midnight, and Boniface, still on prison time, is long past lights out. I clutch my notebook and stare into the rearview mirror, hoping to discern the inner thoughts of a man who has just seen his first McDonald’s, his first American church, his first white-picket fence, and his first onion ring. He’s still on his best prison behavior, which means keeping quiet. I have no idea what he’s thinking. All I see is a deep Virginia darkness.
He wakes up a few times to finger his new ID before closing his eyes again.
By the time we get to Constitution Avenue, the game is getting away from the Knicks, and Boniface is finally perking up. He’s never seen D.C. and pushes his face against the window, drinking in the marble. He still plays the silent shadow. Humphrey finally pulls into the school and spots a waiting and smiling Catholic priest, who asked not to be named.
Boniface gets out of the car first. “I’m happy, man. I got to go to sleep,” he tells everyone, letting out one big, air pillow of a sigh. “I’m just tired.” The questions from Humphrey, and from me, will have to come another time. We let him go.
Back in the car, Humphrey vibrates from the experience. It is just past midnight, and I think we’ve learned nothing about his client. Humphrey doesn’t agree.
“I can already see it tonight,” he says. “His capacity to tell his own story is going to be substantially enhanced. He wasn’t constantly bubbling, but he had these moments. He laughed more easily.”
Humphrey’s mind races to thoughts of Boniface’s forthcoming hearing: “[The case] is still going to be a roller coaster for him. But just the fact that he can wake up tomorrow and be in his own room—I don’t know whether that’s happened to him in his entire life.”
Boniface makes a very indistinct victim. Step into one of the INS’s prisons and you will hear stories of rapes, machete attacks, and midnight rides to nowhere. Boniface’s story is not like that. He was, and is, one lost boy batted between two corrupt countries. And now, perhaps, a third. It may not open the sympathy ducts as other stories have—Rwanda, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo—but his story contains the roots of every asylum grunt: an identity gone missing.
Being no one is never a good thing, but America is a very difficult place to exist as a nonperson. Every time Boniface tries to accomplish anything here, he fails, because no identity means no credibility. In an information age, he has no fixed address; no driver’s license, phone number, fax number, cell phone number, e-mail address, or beeper. He has no credit card or Social Security number to call his own. He has no baby pictures.
He landed at Dulles with few artifacts from his past: a collection of anonymous clothes (a few pairs of jeans, some T-shirts, one pair of boxers, one stick of Juicy Fruit gum) and a well-worn silver Swatch called Irony. The rest of his life is in dispute.
Boniface says he was born on Feb. 11, 1977.
He grew up in southern Sudan, the details of which he remembers only as a child might—the crumbs of memory, small snapshots of neighborhood games, close-enough-to-accurate facts, and low-to-the-ground wounds. The first thing he recalls is that he played goalkeeper in street pickup soccer matches.
He came from a relatively well-off family settled in Akieko, a small town located in the Western Equatoria region. Although he never knew his father and says his mother went away to a mental institution, he had stability. He stayed with his uncle, George Boniface, in a two-bedroom, “mod”-style house. There was plenty of green space where the two used to plant mango, orange, and tangerine trees. He also remembers visiting farms.
As he got older, Chucks Boniface started to attend lessons, where he learned rudimentary English and math. His uncle spoke a native language that Boniface recalls as “Rou.” But his uncle also spoke English, the language that was used in the Catholic church Boniface attended. Boniface remembers that his uncle was prominent in the church and was active politically.
Since its independence in the mid-’50s, Sudan has struggled with an on-again, off-again, on-again civil war that was hatched along geographical lines (north vs. south) and between religious groups (Sunni Muslims vs. Christians and other religious minorities). After a relatively peaceful decade, the civil war resumed in 1983. As a political and church leader from southern Sudan, George Boniface was a potential target for the government and northern forces.
That year, while giving a speech, George Boniface was shot and killed. Chucks Boniface recalls not his uncle’s last moments, but the craziness in the streets. “Fighting, shouting, all around the city,” he explains. He wishes there were more to this scene. “I wish I remember….That was a long time ago.”
The same night, he fled with his neighbors, the Oglehus, taking nothing with him. “Belongings, I can have any time,” he offers. “I think about life.” Boniface says he and the Oglehus hid in bushes and walked to the nearby airport, where they caught a plane to Nigeria.
In leaving Sudan, he left his mother. “That’s what hurts me so much,” he admits. “I wish she knew where I was.” Boniface says he can’t remember what she looks like.
His new family settled in Lagos. Boniface says, despite his feelings now, that then he tried to forget his past and his mother. He says that remembering her was too painful. “I have to let go,” Boniface explains. “Back then, I don’t really think of her. Now that I’m by myself, it makes me crazy so much.”
He stayed with the Oglehus, at 20 Odo St., for six years, until he completed primary school. No authorities bothered him about his undocumented status. But once he started secondary school at the British-styled Igbobi College, his nationality, or lack of one, became an issue.
Nigeria has long been a place refugees seek out. Not only is the country one of the richest in Africa, it has a reputation for producing world-class scholars. Timothy Bork, director of the Africa Policy Initiative at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, explains that a lot of Africans view Nigeria as the brightest of symbols. “It’s looked to as the most important country in the continent,” Bork adds. “Some people say, ‘As Nigeria goes, so goes Africa.’ Of course, that’s something a lot of us don’t like to hear.”
What Bork only alludes to is the fact that Nigeria is an unstable country with a dismal track record on human rights. In the mid-’90s, the Nigerian government gained notoriety for its participation in the murder of environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar had seized power in 1998 after a series of bloodless coups and several annulled elections. He has been working towards a democratic civilian government, but many human rights abuses are still routine.
During that same time, Lagos was the site of many random military raids. An October 1995 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) report suggests that the targets for most of these attacks were ordinary civilians. In more than 2,000 incidents, the report says, “Hundreds of young men, women, traders and market women [were] picked up on grounds of being implicated in criminal activity.” The report also noted that citizens were subject to arbitrary house searches, phone taps, and bomb attacks. The arrests weren’t normally made by the police, but by the eerily titled Lagos State Environmental Sanitation Task Force.
Under these political circumstances, Boniface felt especially vulnerable. Not only did he carry around the psychic baggage of his past, but he had to operate undocumented—which meant he was under constant suspicion.
After he began attending Igbobi College, at age 12, immigration officials started coming around to the Oglehus’ house looking for their official citizenship papers. Boniface says he didn’t want to cause the Oglehus any more trouble than they already had and decided to leave. He ended up a neighborhood nomad, sleeping on friends’ mats while continuing school. He says he moved “from one family to another every few months” as a precaution, according to his asylum application.
After having graduated from secondary school in the mid-’90s, he enrolled at the University of Lagos, where he studied pharmacy. That year he also got a job as a pharmacist’s assistant. Neither schooling nor employment lasted long. In his second year, school officials noticed Boniface: “I was told by a university administrator that I must bring proof of my Nigerian identity or I would be forced to leave the school and would be reported to the police,” he wrote in his asylum application.
The cops were onto him, as well: “When they would catch me, either in my friends’ homes or on the street, they would threaten to deport me or send me to a refugee camp,” he wrote. “I would always promise to leave the country, and then I would move to a different friend’s house.”
He found himself in the wrong place one night while he was on the run. During a pro-democracy rally, a police officer smacked him in the forehead with a nightstick. He still has a diamond-shaped scar from the incident.
After Boniface left school—fearing the next police raid—he quit his job. He says his boss, a Muslim, wanted him to convert from his Christian faith. The boss kept pressuring him, he wrote in his application. He says that it made his job “impossible.”
By 1998, Boniface, then 21, wanted to stop living in fear of the police. He didn’t want to end up in a refugee camp, and he didn’t want to be sent back to Sudan. He had saved his money from his pharmacy job, which paid about $50 a month. He had also picked up extra money from work as a laborer at a construction site ($1 a day).
At the end of last summer, Boniface contacted John Oglehu, the neighbor with whom he had fled from Sudan. “I explain to him that I’ve been having too much problems here. I wanted peace of mind. I wanted to leave the country,” he says.
Oglehu went to work on acquiring a passport, a fake identity that Boniface purchased with money he had saved. According to INS documents, it was stolen from Ghana. Boniface began his journey under a new name: “Alexander Afedzi Hayford,” a new place of birth, “California, U.S.A.,” and a new, much older birthday, “July 16, 1967.” He had paid $2,000 to become Hayford.
He first flew to Kenya. After a monthlong stint there, he chose Washington as his destination. “I knew it was the capital of the United States,” he explains. He had $780 left in his pocket.
But at a stopover in Frankfurt, Germany, he tried to apply for asylum there. According to his U.S. asylum application, the German immigration officials told him because he had a valid U.S. passport and a ticket through to the U.S., they couldn’t grant him asylum. Boniface says he got scared; he was nervous about entering the U.S. with a fake passport. And he knew very little about the country.
Still, he boarded Lufthansa Flight 418 and headed for Washington. He ignored the movie and paced the plane, working on what he would tell immigration officials. He invented a whole new history to go with his new identity as Hayford.
“Where was I going to start from?” Boniface remembers asking himself. “I was just so confused. I didn’t really know how to approach [the INS]. I decided to tell them I was in Nigeria because of how long I stayed there. My main problem is that I don’t know where to start my story from. I don’t have no document.”
When Boniface got off the plane in October, he approached Immigration Inspector Teresa Parker and quickly proceeded to blow his cover. According to Parker’s report, as she was checking his passport, he asked her where he could pick up his luggage. He then asked what he was supposed to do next—hardly the behavior of a seasoned American traveler. She became immediately suspicious and had Boniface directed to an interview room with Immigration Inspector James A. Starkey.
Starkey asked him where he was born. Boniface told him he was born in “L.A., California.” Starkey then asked him what “L.A.” stood for. Boniface replied, “L.A.” Starkey suggested that Boniface was traveling on a fake passport. Boniface denied it.
Unlike a lot of his past, he remembers those first few hours very well. “The way they were just watching me,” he says of the INS officials. “That really confused me. They were asking me a lot of questions.” He says he thought about telling them the truth right then and there, but he decided it was too risky because the U.S. government’s relationship with Sudan was at an all-time low.
“To tell them I’m from Sudan…” he explains, “I knew that the Americans and the Sudan aren’t on good terms. I remember the Sudanese bombing the American Embassy.” He just kept quiet.
He was placed in custody at Dulles and transferred to Arlington County Detention Facility. A couple days later, he was shipped to the Alexandria Jail. He was being criminally prosecuted for using the bogus passport.
Gradually, whatever stories he drummed up began to melt into his true life. In an interview with Lani Yaksich, a senior INS inspector, on Dec. 2, he mentioned his mother for the first time: “Maria Boniface Hayford.” On Dec. 18, he pleaded guilty for the use of an altered passport. The judge asked him, under oath, what his name was, and he said: “Chucks Boniface.”
He later told INS officials that he was 21 and a citizen of Nigeria who had fled his country due to religious persecution. Boniface says he continued to steer his story away from Sudan because of its problems with the U.S. and the fact that he had lived in Nigeria much longer. He could remember his life in Nigeria, whereas Sudan came to him only in bits and pieces.
INS officials weren’t sure what to do. Boniface hadn’t claimed asylum, only changed his story; instead of an American-born citizen, he was a very anxious Nigerian who had no concept of immigration rules and procedures.
His court-appointed attorney, Bravitt Manley, remembers visiting him in Alexandria. “He was frightened,” Manley says. “He was terrified to return. We had difficulty trying to pin down exactly where his homeland was. Everyone agreed he was frightened, but frightened of what?”
On March 5, he was sentenced to time served and two years unsupervised probation, and the INS moved to deport him. Boniface was sent back to Dulles that afternoon for a plane bound for Nigeria. The car ride was rough. “I was so scared,” Boniface remembers.
At the airport, once again, an INS officer asked him whether he wished to seek asylum. This time he answered in the affirmative.
When asked during another interview with Yaksich that day why he hadn’t just claimed asylum when he first arrived, Boniface said he was just following instructions Oglehu had given him. “[He told me] just to say, ‘The passport is mine, the passport is mine.’”
Boniface says that returning to the airport made him realize his story wasn’t working. “I just make up my mind to tell them everything,” he says. “I felt good. I told them I am from Sudan.”
On March 16 and 18, he was interviewed in “credible-fear” hearings. Such hearings are the first obstacles to gaining political asylum—a detainee must provide evidence that he has been a victim of, or could be a victim of, persecution in his homeland. According to the INS, 86 percent of applicants meet this requirement. Boniface, despite the fake-passport charge, cleared this hurdle.
During his hearings, he told his story simply. His answers were terse and to the point, according to the hearing transcripts.
“I didn’t care what they do to me,” Boniface says. “I didn’t care no more. Just tell them everything.”
Boniface was sent back to prison after his hearings in March, this time farther south to the Rappahannock Regional Jail in Fredericksburg. He didn’t know when he would be out, when the final hearing for his asylum claim would be up. He just waited in his cell. During recreation, he learned to love pingpong.
In April, he was transferred to Virginia Beach. Boniface may have considered himself a prison veteran, but he wasn’t prepared for his new confinement and new routine: 4 a.m. wake-up calls for breakfast, 11 a.m. lunches, and 4 p.m. dinners; his cell was dark by 11 p.m.
Boniface says that inmates were allowed outside only on Wednesdays and Sundays, and for only 20 minutes. Here, he learned to excel in basketball, but other than during those 40 minutes a week, he was tucked in his cell. He was housed in an annex apart from the main jail. The cell was a large open room—like a barracks—which held roughly 30 inmates and one toilet.
Boniface had never been to prison before coming to the U.S.; he was now sharing a cell with both drug felons and petty criminals. He didn’t know any other immigrant detainees. Boniface says there were no books nor library. He slept, played chess, and watched a shitload of television.
The TV, always a big focal point in prison—it’s the one thing the inmates can have control over—became a source of trouble for Boniface. He says he was watching the news one evening when another inmate changed the channel. When he protested, he got sucker-punched in the face. He called for the guards. He was soon transferred to another jumbo cell. Boniface learned to stay quiet.
“Here, they take your freedom,” Boniface said from prison in mid-June. “They take everything away from you. It’s no life. It’s no life. You don’t have nothing here to re-educate yourself. This place can really mess with your mind. I wish I could re-educate myself. They don’t have nothing. I want to do something, just to feel like I’m in school, studying.”
Boniface didn’t expect the Ellis Island treatment, America offering its sheltering arms to the poor and persecuted. The Statue of Liberty has long given up her body to tourists, and Ellis Island is now sacred ground. Those are symbols of a time when immigration wasn’t a dirty word and foreigners were accepted by the boatload. When the Industrial Revolution’s appetite for immigrant labor petered out, however, so did America’s interest in open doors.
While he didn’t think he would waltz into America free and clear, Boniface didn’t foresee a lengthy jail stint to prove he exists. But the INS is expressing the will of Congress, and, presumably, the people it represents. Both the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 put a high bar on entrance to the U.S. These laws put teeth in the INS’s detention policy.
Even asylum seekers who have passed their credible-fear hearings are still subject to detention. Parole is up to the discretion of individual INS officers and their supervisors. Asylum applicants are judged on a case-by-case basis; parole is granted to only 40 percent of those detained. According to a 1998 Human Rights Watch report, the INS has admitted that it was unprepared for the onslaught of new detainees that the 1996 laws would foster.
The number of prison beds available to the INS has had to be increased fourfold since 1994, from 4,000 beds to 16,400, according to Russ Bergeron, the INS’s director of media relations. By 2001, the agency expects to reach a capacity of 23,000 beds. The INS can’t build fast enough—apart from the nine INS-operated detention centers, it contracts out to more than 150 county prisons nationwide, including 10 in Virginia. Bergeron says that 200,000 immigrants a year are going through the system.
Bergeron and other immigration officials argue that the hefty incarceration rate works to tighten up the borders better than any guards or fences could. They say it is a clear deterrent to anyone looking to get into this country through false claims.
“Without detention, it’s impossible to have any credible enforcement of immigration law,” Bergeron argues. “Not every person who claims asylum is a valid, credible asylum seeker.” He has figures to back up his case, noting that, although 86 percent of asylum applicants may pass their credible-fear hearings, only 35 percent make it to full citizenship.
People involved in the immigrants’ side of the equation believe that the criminalization of immigration is not effective public policy, but a dehumanizing attempt at social engineering.
Precisely because they have no power, immigrants are shuttled from prison to prison on a whim, says Jay Fredman, a local immigration lawyer who has clients throughout the country. He adds that immigrants are often placed in facilities far removed from any attorneys. According to a number of immigration-rights activists, only about 11 percent of those detained have lawyers. And detainees can make only collect calls, which cost as much as 25 cents per minute. At Virginia Beach and at Salisbury, Md.,’s Wicomico County Detention Center, personal visits are limited to 20 minutes.
Inside the prisons, activists and lawyers say, there is abundant overcrowding, with inmates sleeping on floors. And few of the libraries are equipped with up-to-date immigration law books.
The biggest and most frequent complaint is that asylum seekers are often mixed in with the criminal population. But jail officials see it differently: By having criminals and asylum seekers together, they argue, they aren’t discriminating against anyone. “We are here to serve everybody,” says Paul Lanteigne, chief deputy for the Virginia Beach facility. He doesn’t know which inmates are asylum seekers and which are not. “You’d have to get that from the INS,” he adds.
With the industry booming and the feds not having the facilities to back up their policies, immigration detainees have become a tidy source of revenue for many local jails. Conditions for prisoners have worsened under a system too bloated for strict oversight, but it is a cash cow for local jails taking in immigrants. The INS rents bed space at a rate of anywhere between $20 and more than $100 per night; at Virginia Beach, the rate is $44.
Lewis Barlow, superintendent for Virginia’s Piedmont Regional Jail, says that detainees are solid citizens in jail. “They are the cream of the crop, really,” he explains. “They don’t cause you any trouble at all….Most of them are very well-mannered.”
But not all are well-adjusted to their lives of incarceration. Barlow mentions Heng Loh, an inmate at Piedmont for more than six months. He has spent much of that time under his metal cot, mumbling incoherently. Barlow says he’s offered Heng a job within the prison, which the inmate has refused. At points, he has rejected any medication. After getting little support from the INS, Barlow called Amnesty International, and he has had a psychologist come in to treat Heng.
Barlow isn’t sure why Heng is even in his prison. “It’s a pathetic thing,” he admits. “I’ve seen the man sleeping under the bunk. I don’t think a human being should do that. We try to treat him as humanely as we can.”
In early April, Boniface began trying to make his own luck. He took the list of lawyers the INS had provided him and started making lots of calls. He made it through to the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. The group’s staff attorney, Stephanie Robinson, sent out a mass e-mail to lawyers who she knew would be willing to take on detainees pro bono. Eventually, Humphrey and another Shearman & Sterling associate, Erik Luckau, agreed to interview Boniface.
According to their notes, they interviewed him on April 12 for three hours. Boniface was despondent and kept his answers short. The two lawyers say they ended up asking him hundreds of questions. At the end of the session, Humphrey and Luckau believed that Boniface had a good case.
Humphrey knew that there were obstacles—missing stretches, white space in Boniface’s memory that the INS wouldn’t understand. His job was to make Boniface’s story not only full and detailed, but credible.
The two lawyers began seeking up-to-date human rights records on Sudan and the area where Boniface once lived. They called newspapers and organizations in Egypt, Kenya, and London. They e-mailed law firms in Nigeria, asking for help. They also worked on calling the schools Boniface had attended in hopes of finding report cards, attendance records, or any teachers who might remember him.
And there was more back-and-forth between Boniface and his lawyers. Humphrey went over Boniface’s story dozens of times, each time asking him the same simple questions in different ways, with different angles and different tones of voice. Almost daily, Boniface would call to complain about prison.
On April 22, one of those bitch sessions got hysterical. Boniface was flustered with confusion and self-doubt. The prison was driving him crazy. “I feel like hurting myself,” he told his lawyer, according to Humphrey’s notes. “I’m not used to this environment here.”
In spite of Boniface’s impatience, his lawyers needed more time. The asylum hearing was scheduled for early May, but it would be postponed at Humphrey’s request. He still needed to connect the dots of Boniface’s case; he sent out a Freedom of Information Act request for all of the INS’s documents related to the fake-passport charge and its credible-fear hearings. He was still waiting for replies from the Nigerian schools.
There was no hope of finding Boniface’s birth certificate in Sudan. The country was in the midst of war and further torn by famine. The U.S. State Department had put Sudan on a list among six other countries that sponsor terrorism, and in 1997, trade and economic sanctions were imposed on the country. One U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, says that the country has one of the worst human rights records in the world.
Because of the current civil war, Humphrey was confident Boniface could make a case for asylum if he could prove Boniface was from Sudan. Humphrey mainly worked on finding school records and locating John Oglehu. He thought if he could find Oglehu and get him to back up Boniface’s story, his client would have a decent chance of winning his asylum claim.
In mid-June, Humphrey decided to visit Boniface in Virginia Beach, in the hope that a face-to-face meeting would bring out new clues as to his old friend’s whereabouts. I tagged along.
During the car ride down, on a sunny Monday afternoon, in another rental Ford Contour, Humphrey was nervous.
“What’s so difficult about this is we’re working under American evidentiary standards,” he complained. “He has nothing. It’s tough. I don’t have evidentiary proof. I have written to the high school. I have talked on the phone to the university where he attended classes. Whether or not they are going to be able to produce any records, we’ll see. It could be there are no records.” Humphrey had already spent more than 100 hours on this case.
When we got to the prison, we had to wait in a small, fenced-in, gray room. Within five minutes, Boniface appeared through a glass-and-metal grate, dressed in his orange jumpsuit. To communicate, the two had to play an odd game of prison telephone: Boniface would speak through a wire-mesh covered hole and Humphrey would press his ear to the hole to listen. Humphrey had to sit on the counter top and lean his body against the glass to hear him clearly. He couldn’t make eye contact.
Humphrey pressed Boniface for new details, anything at all. He talked over what would happen at the trial, how the judge would question Boniface via video conferencing. It was a prep talk Humphrey had given many times before.
With the tough-love speech over, he introduced me to Boniface and let me talk to him for a while, thinking his client might enjoy some new company.
Boniface greeted me with a fist to the glass. I placed my fist against his. We talked over the details of his story, from Sudan to Nigeria and then the U.S. He stopped on his mother and started to cry. Not a torrent, just a few hot, slow tears slipping from the sides of his eyes.
“I wouldn’t mind going back to [Sudan] just to see her face,” he says. “I wouldn’t mind anything just to see her….I don’t know much about her. I’d love to see her. I’d love to see her very much.”
After Boniface composed himself, Humphrey questioned him about Oglehu. He asked his client to draw a map of how to get to Oglehu’s house from the university. Boniface drew two lines in black ink.
Humphrey cajoled and pleaded: Isn’t there more to your old neighborhood? Boniface didn’t understand why addresses and maps might be important to his case; he still thought his story was proof enough. After some more pestering, Boniface took the pen and paper and drew a few more squiggles that looked like waves, another few lines to fill out his neighborhood, and a space for his old school.
We left Boniface eating his spaghetti dinner with a plastic spoon and a bemused look on his face. He said goodbye with another fist-to-the-glass handshake.
Outside the prison, Humphrey was pumped. Map in hand, he felt as if he had reached an understanding with his client. “I’ve been asking him directions to how to get to [Oglehu] for six weeks now,” he explained. “I had this breakthrough with him. He finally got the idea that details matter.”
In D.C., Boniface knows five people, including me. Even though I am constantly asking him questions and taking notes, he insists on seeing me as his friend. And I feel compelled to act like one.
I take him to shoot pool even if I don’t feel like it, or drive around Dupont Circle and walk
M Street until he’s sleepy. I can’t really think of a good way to say no to him.
During his first week outside prison and in D.C., he spends most of his time fretting about his appearance. He worries that his hair is too long (it’s peach-fuzz length), that his shorts are too small (they’re fine, not even close to that embarrassing jogging-short cut), that he needs fresher, hipper clothes. One sarcastic remark sends him into a flurry of self-doubt. I make one joke about his shorts, and he almost has me schlepping out to Montgomery Mall and charging a pair on my credit card.
When he isn’t self-analyzing and we happen to be in my car, he orders me to turn the radio dial to WKYS-FM. Since coming here, he has managed to memorize every hiphop song currently in rotation. Boniface loves every tune on that station, from Tupac’s latest posthumous release to the Backstreet Boys’ freshest zit-popping ballad. He becomes entranced, practically turning my passenger seat into his own dance floor, singing along in a soft, way-off-key warble. I do not hesitate to tell him that his voice stinks.
I make sure to fill his first week with plenty of car trips. That Thursday afternoon, the day after his release, he calls me at work. He’s bored and I happen to be, too. I bolt to pick him up.
It’s weird to see the city through new eyes. He marvels at an ATM machine, laughing hysterically when my $20 pops out. When a biker pulls up alongside the car and greets him with a “Hey, man,” Boniface doesn’t know what to do. He turns to me, confessing the obvious: “I don’t even know him.”
That weekend, we go to a ballgame on the law firm’s tickets. It bores him, like almost everything else. After a half-inning of watching the Orioles get kicked around by the Yankees, Boniface retires inside the stadium in search of a cool place to sit. I spend the afternoon following him around the concessions.
Boniface knows how to blow his money. At the first stand, much to my disappointment, he purchases a Yankees hat and shirt with a little help from the firm. He’s down to $4. “This is my team,” he exclaims. In the next breath he confuses his allegiance a bit: “I love Sosa.”
After the game, he begs me to take him to play pool. Just as we finish up our rounds at Atomic Billiards, a stranger, whom I have protectively eyed for an hour as potential trouble, approaches and asks if Boniface is from New York. Must be the T-shirt. Boniface says no: “I’m from Africa.” The stranger just mutters, “Cool.” It’s the first time someone has accepted him on his word and left it at that.
All the folks he knows are always asking Boniface questions; they all want something out of him. So he keeps his answers short. When I ask him what he thinks of M Street, he offers only: “It’s cool.” He’s a little bewildered by D.C.—and by me.
But occasionally, he lets information about his life slip out. One night at a restaurant, he tells Luckau his old girlfriend’s name: “Winifred.”
A few days after the ballgame, he calls me as usual at work. He wants to get a library card. I pick him up, and we head downtown to Martin Luther King Memorial Library. Once inside, he takes out his INS identification card and approaches the checkout desk. I give the man behind the counter the ID. “Hold on for a second,” he says. The guy comes back with a big no. I tell him that the card is an official document. He goes and talks with his supervisor. It’s a waste of time—Boniface is already aiming for the door.
“I don’t like argument,” he whispers tersely. I tug at his sleeve to make him stay. “Forget it, let’s go.”
I continue to press. “I don’t know how to talk,” he says. “I don’t talk much. Forget it. I don’t like it.”
Boniface finally has an ID, but it isn’t doing him much good. He’s still not sure of himself, who he is, and whether that’s enough to impress the people who stand behind counters and decide things.
The next morning, a Thursday, I meet with his lawyers. They’re worried that he’s still in prison mode. He sits in his room, sleeps a lot, and hasn’t met anyone. Humphrey and Luckau say the priest from the high school has called in worried as well, suggesting that Boniface may be seriously depressed. The priest has added that his new resident will probably not be able to live there much longer.
“One of the things he’s fighting, obviously, is boredom,” Luckau explains. “He needs help. He’s very reluctant to approach anyone.”
For July Fourth, everyone makes an effort to fit Boniface in. Luckau has planned the whole day: Hit the outdoor concert adjacent to the MCI Center, meet up with the priest in the evening, and then go down to the Mall for the fireworks.
The bands outside are no match for the temperature, and Boniface wants to leave soon after we get there. When Luckau realizes that the heat is too much, we all decide to go to the movies at Union Station to cool down. We sit through the latest Austin Powers movie. Boniface says it isn’t as good as the first one, which he saw when he lived in Nigeria.
The rest of the day, he plays the teenager: girl watching, complaining that he is too hot, skipping out on the priest to watch the Violent Femmes with Luckau and his friends. When a young woman starts grinding her butt in his face, he turns to me with a shy grin.
I see that he’s finally in a good mood and try to slip in a few questions.
“Why you ask me so many questions? This is my free day, man.” For somebody who isn’t a real American in the eye of the law, he seems to have a good understanding of the meaning of Independence Day.
Before the fireworks, Boniface finally settles down in the middle of the Mall. But only after a frantic search for a Porta Potti. We all sit on a blanket as the lights start flecking the Washington Monument. He lets out a full-toothed smile and a whoop.
Tonight, there is no Nigeria nor Sudan nor Virginia prison, just him as one of a crowd under a sky full of lights. “I love it,” Boniface exclaims, a smile planted big and goofy across his face. “I love it. I think I saw my name up there.”
He will return to days indoors, to study for life in America, on the chance that he gets to stay here. There will be days in front of the television, long hours with a GED prep book, and the occasional lap to the Capitol. Boniface still doesn’t know where he will end up; he is still at the mercy of the INS. He is broke. He can’t work until November, per INS regulations. And there has been no date set for his asylum hearing.
Boniface calls me a week after the fireworks to remind me of one thing: He wants a radio. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.