On July 2, at 9:02 a.m., Stockton University professor Elisa von Joeden-Forgey, a Bella Vista resident, received a text from her friend Elly: “Elisa ICE detain me n my husband.”
“It’s a text nobody wants to get,” Forgey wrote on Facebook later that day, after spending the day at the Philadelphia ICE office trying to get information about Elly and her husband, Fnu. Forgey detailed the experience in a viral Facebook post titled “American Nightmare” and in an article that was read by nearly 500,000 people on Inquirer.com. Two months later, Forgey shared a Facebook update on Elly and Fnu, which she titled “American Hell." Forgey worked with Inquirer editors to adapt that post for this story.
Two months ago I wrote about my friends Elly and Fnu, asylum-seekers from Indonesia, who were unexpectedly picked up in Philadelphia by ICE on their way to work one morning.
After my friends were taken, their family members (a brother and two children, both citizens) slowly began to piece together what happened.
Elly ended up at York County Prison. Before being sent there, she was taken to a facility in Delaware County and held for two days alone in a small room with only a chair. She had her period but was not given access to a shower or to enough water to wash herself. During this time, nobody outside the system knew where she was. Her family was terrified.
After two days she was moved from that small room to York County Prison, two hours from Philadelphia, which houses about 60 female immigration detainees in a room with bunk beds. There is no private space – even the showers and toilets are public.
Elly’s husband was first placed in a maximum-security section of Pike County Correctional Facility. Then he was moved to the detainee population of Pike, 188 miles from his wife and 137 miles from his daughters, one of whom is in her second year of college. The other is in high school.
Elly and Fnu are a married couple who escaped pogroms in Indonesia against ethnically Chinese Christians in 1998. For over 20 years, Elly and Fnu have been seeking asylum in America. Before being arrested, both worked full time. They emphasized education and put their children through public magnet schools in Philadelphia. They own a house and participated in many volunteer activities involving their church and the Indonesian community.
Recently, I went to visit Elly in York, a one-story concrete building complex surrounded by barbed-wire fences. As I drove into the prison’s parking lot, I saw a grassy, though treeless, yard. I was relieved that there was outside space for the inmates.
Per the ICE visitation instructions, I left my bag in the car and brought only my wallet and keys.
The heavy front doors opened by a buzzer. I pressed the button and waited for the buzzer to sound. When I stepped inside, an officer greeted me pleasantly from her desk. She checked my friend’s name and verified that I was on the approved visitor list.
She instructed me to go through the metal detector. As I walked through, the alarm went off. She instructed me to try walking sideways back through it in the opposite direction. I did so, and the alarm went off again.
“It’s probably my bra,” I said. “It always causes problems at the airport.”
She was not allowed to use a wand on me and told me that I could instead take off my bra in my car and we could then try again. I asked if I could take off my bra right there, but she seemed embarrassed by the idea. She pointed out a bathroom in the waiting room, so I went there.
Braless, I went through the machine again. This time the machine had gone off at my knees and then at my feet. I took off my watch. Again, it went off.
I was asked whether I had other shoes in the car. I asked if I could go into the room in just my socks but learned that shoes were required.
The officer told me there was a Dollar General nearby where I could purchase flip-flops.
I walked back to my car, aware of being braless, and drove off to look for the Dollar General. After I parked, I found a way to put my bra back on while in the car in the parking lot without ever being completely topless.
Inside, I found a sports bra with no underwire and a pair of slippers for $5.
I changed into the sports bra in the semiprivate loading area, noticing only after I was done that the area is under 24-hour video surveillance.
Back at the prison, I went through the metal detector in the new outfit and was cleared for my visit.
I walked past the metal detector and expected the massive interior doors to lead me into the prison, but to my dismay I was directed to a seat in front of a thick pane of glass with a row of seats on either side. I felt momentary annoyance that I could not walk the five paces between the metal detector and this barren room in my socks or in my bra.
Elly was already sitting behind the thick glass.
Her pretty face was colorless and sallow, drawn with worry. I put my hand on the glass, but then took it away, feeling like a cliché. She smiled at me and I couldn’t help thinking of the joyful person she was just over two months ago. The last time I saw her and her husband, at the Italian Market Festival near our homes, they were laughing about the annual grease pole competition.
“I am so sorry I am here so late!” I spoke into the heavy phone receiver. I explained the shoe and bra problem, and we were able to laugh. Elly told me that I was lucky, as it can take a long time for her to be retrieved from her room. This day she was coming directly from a GED class, however, which is closer to the entryway. She has a college degree in civil engineering. She is taking the class because it is the only activity available to detainees.
“How are you treated?” I ask her.
Elly tells me that it depends on the guards. Some guards are nice and try to be helpful. Others are not very nice.
“Do you have any friends in here? Anyone to talk to?”
“I was talking to a woman last night,” she said. “We were sharing our stories.”
“Oh, I am so glad.” I said. I was so relieved to hear that Elly may have a friend.
Elly’s face showed that I was not understanding yet.
“Yes, yes – but … at 4:30 a.m. this morning ICE came to get her and deported her.”
“She had no idea?”
“No, she was like me, talking about her case.”
“Where was she from?”
I asked Elly how she was handling all of this, and she began to cry.
During my drive I had worried that I would make her cry, but I understood now how foolish that worry was: Everything about this would make anyone cry.
“People say have faith,” she said. “That God has a plan that is right for me and I should trust it. But--”
She looked straight at me with urgency.
“But deep in my heart, in my heart of hearts, I want to STAY.”
“I really want you to stay too,” I said. “The whole neighborhood wants you to stay.”
“Do you think people want us back?”
My heart stopped. “Yes, of course. Why wouldn’t they?”
“Because we were picked up,” she said slowly, through tears. “In public on the way to work. The owner of the meat shop was standing right there and saw the whole thing. We were handcuffed. What must they all think? That we committed a crime or did something bad.”
I asked her how her girls were when they came. “It is hard to tell,” Elly said. “They try to be strong and I have to be strong.”
Elly speaks with her children every night via the prison’s Skype option, which allows prisoners to video-chat with friends and family for $15 per half hour. She is desperately trying to be a good mother from prison. Meanwhile, her brother is now in charge of the children and has become the sole breadwinner, having to pay for the house, the car, the mounting legal bills, the very expensive calls to prison, the inflated commissary items, all on his own, with the family budget cut by two-thirds.
I asked Elly about her husband. They were separated at the moment of arrest and have not been able to speak to each other since then. She only hears how he is doing through her children, who visit him too.
“It’s the man’s prison, so it is worse,” Elly says.
Fnu is in a locked cell with two other inmates for most of the day. Once, when his children came to visit him alone, the little one was not allowed in with her sister, even though her sister is over 18. The guard said she could not qualify as an adult in this instance but offered no explanation why. The little one was not allowed to sit in the waiting room either and had to wait alone in the car.
“So give me a picture of your day,” I said, trying to somehow find a way to access her life behind these prison walls. “How long are you outside for?” I ask, remembering the prison yard.
“Oh, we detainees don’t get to go outside. Only regular prisoners. I have not seen the sun for two months,” she said. I looked at her sallow complexion and understood.
There is one room, where they sometimes open the windows.
At that moment, a prerecorded woman’s voice came on the line, telling us our visit would be over soon.
I could feel our conversation deflating around us and I got angry.
“Let’s talk to the very, very end,” I said.
We spoke hurriedly for the first time, knowing the line would go dead soon.
And then the phone went dead. I saw Elly’s face steel itself. We both put our hands up on the glass and sat there for a long time, just looking at each other.
I was the first to lower my hands and make a move to leave. I was afraid she would get in trouble. I remembered something she had told me on the phone: that if you cry too much in ICE detention, you are put in the “hole” – solitary confinement.