Nancy Green: Why one man’s life matters

“Jason Ng was in a moment deprived of his freedom, declared illegal as he petitioned to remain in the country where he had spent more than half his life. He was delivered to a corrupt system that exists for profit, not justice.”
Photo for Nancy Green: Why one man’s life matters

Published on April 14, 2022
By Nancy Green

It Can’t Happen Here, Can It?

No one believes that North Korea told the whole truth about the imprisonment and death of Otto Warmbier. Otto entered North Korea with a guided tour in 2015 and was arrested on a charge of trying to steal a poster. His family and the United States Government worked tirelessly to get him released home, fearing that he was tortured in prison.  After 17 months he was delivered to his parents severely brain damaged and in a coma and died less than a week later.

Hiu Lui Ng, known as Jason, was arrested in 2007 at an immigration office in New York, where he had expected to be interviewed for a Green Card. He remained in detention until his untimely death in Rhode Island Hospital in 2008. Despite the tireless efforts of his family to get him medical care he suffered the pain of terminal cancer for months and died shortly after being released to the hospital. According to court affadavits filed by his widow, he was subjected to harsh treatment, neglect, and accusations of faking his pain.

Otto Warmbier was, in a moment, deprived of his freedom, a stranger without rights at the mercy of what passes for law in a brutal dictatorship.

Jason Ng was in a moment deprived of his freedom, declared illegal as he petitioned to remain in the country where he had spent more than half his life. He was delivered to a corrupt system that exists for profit, not justice.

We are not North Korea, but the outcomes are not so far apart.  

What was Jason’s Crime?

He missed some paperwork. Jason came to the United States with his parents on a temporary visa when he was 17. When his parents went back to Hong Kong he stayed behind with a work permit. He went to high school, earned a college degree and worked as an IT specialist. He married an American and they had two sons. Jason wanted to clarify his status and started the process to apply for a Green Card. Jason was not aware that a notice to appear in court was mailed to the wrong address and when he didn’t appear he was ordered in absentia to be removed from the United States. This is how he was swept into ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement). 

Is ICE the Same as Immigration?

ICE is less than 20 years old, established in 2003, part of the post 9/11 Department of Homeland Security.  Before then, immigration was enforced under the Department of Justice. ICE is part of a shift since the 1980’s to militarization of border patrol and of law enforcement generally. Lack of documentation, a civil offense, was now treated as a crime. 

It Didn’t Have to be This Way

When Jason Ng showed up at what he thought was a Green Card interview, he could have been asked why he didn’t respond to the summons that he never received. He could have been given a date to return to court. With no criminal history and a job and family here he was not a flight risk. He could hire an immigration lawyer to help him make his case. He would have been free to see a doctor when he began to feel sick, but any chance he had to survive his cancer was lost when he was locked up for a year. He spent his last days in a cell instead of with his wife and sons. 

Who Greased the Skids?

The United States is primed to lock people up. Since 1983 a prison for profit industry has expanded across the country. At first the War on Drugs provided the human resources (prisoners) needed to keep cells filled and corporate profits flowing, but as states came to feel the harm done by mass incarceration, another source was needed. ICE and for-profit detention centers coordinate to create a machine fueled by human misery and our tax dollars. When Jason Ng walked into an office that should have given him an interview and a court date, he was snatched by this machine.

The more we fund prison for profit the more money corporations have to buy influence in Congress. They lobby for harsh immigration policies to grease the fast track to incarceration. They launder our Federal tax money through detention centers producing family separation, suffering, and corporate profits. Private prisons also target poor communities as sites, promising jobs and economic salvation. This is how Central Falls established the first public/private detention center in the United States, the Donald W. Wyatt Detention Center, in 1993. It was supposed to solve financial problems in Central Falls but failed to deliver and now is a weight on the city which owes millions to bondholders for construction and an expansion in 2006 that dug them in deeper. 

This is Un-American!

While this is not how we want to believe we are as a people, our immigration system is broken. We have always had unequal treatment of people applying for asylum, and the strain at the Southern border goes back much further than the past five years. Racism has clouded our vision and hindered good policy. Politicians get money and votes by talking tough about people who come here illegally, often to escape intolerable conditions in their countries. Immigration reform is badly needed. The money wasted on a symbolic wall is needed to staff immigration offices and services at the border. We need to use diplomacy to help our neighboring countries solve the problems that drive people to emigrate, and expand legal ways for people to apply to come to the US while in their home countries. 

The cycle of money from ICE to private detention has to be shut down. As long as it remains it will create a perverse incentive to lock people up and build new jails. 

Depriving a person of liberty is a very severe punishment. When there is no other way to ensure public safety, or the offense to justice is severe, the state does have jails and prisons that are more accountable to the public than private corporations. 

Where Do We Stand Now?

The system that captured Jason Ng is still running at full speed. An immigration office in Warwick, RI is expanding and adding short-term detention cells. The next victim may find themselves in one of these cells, awaiting shipment to incarceration in a for-profit detention center. The Wyatt Detention Center continues to coordinate with ICE for more human resources to keep the money flowing. 

What Next?

States are passing laws against private prisons. This year in the Rhode Island House of Representatives House Bill 7739 starts the process of getting the Wyatt out of Central Falls and banning any new for-profit jails or detention centers.

Ending the obligations to the Wyatt bondholders is a long process, so now is the time to start. Our legislature is in session now, it’s a good time to call, email or write to them. Keep informed. A lot of this is reported on the back pages, as in Warwick, where residents had no idea that a new short-term detention facility was being built in their back yard. 

Jason Ng’s Life Matters

Jason’s sons are now young adults. His widow successfully sued the Wyatt, but there is no remedy for the harm that was done to him and his family. All we can do now is stop the machine that corrupts our justice system and profits from locking people up. ICE was created in a post-9/11 panic, we need to step back from a focus on enforcement and towards reform so that people really can ‘get in line’ and not find a locked door at the end.

Jason Ng stands for many others harmed by an aggressive and corrupted immigration system, much worsened in the last five years. May his family some day find comfort that he is not forgotten. 

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