Patrick Julney was first detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in 2019. He had been living in the U.S. since he was a young child attending high school in New Jersey, where he played on the football team and fell in love with Laura Julney, who was a cheerleader at the time. They married in 2021.
Now, they interact over glitchy WhatsApp calls. Julney was deported to Haiti in July, where he faced four months of detention at Haiti’s National Penitentiary. Julney and advocates say his deportation was a reprisal for speaking out against conditions in ICE detention centers. As a Black Muslim, Julney witnessed how anti-Blackness undergirds the immigration and criminal legal system and experienced the power and difficulties of organizing to abolish this system. Facing abysmal conditions in the National Penitentiary, Julney feared for his life until he was released on Oct. 24. He is now living with family friends in Haiti and trying to piece his life together.
Haitian authorities didn’t charge Julney with any crime in Haiti, yet the country has a longstanding illegal practice of detaining deportees who were formerly incarcerated in the U.S. Julney says there were approximately 30 other detainees from the U.S. in the penitentiary even though, according to Haitian law, it is illegal to detain deportees from the U.S., regardless of their criminal history.
During one of his interviews with Prism, while held in the penitentiary, Julney had to shout to be heard over a cacophony of voices in an overcrowded jail cell prior to his release.
“ICE sent us here to die,” Julney said. “This is a death sentence.”
His concerns were well-founded. On Oct. 10, another detainee, Roody Fogg, died from cholera. Fogg was 40 years old and had been detained in the National Penitentiary since the U.S. deported him in April. A local nonprofit organization, Health Through Walls, offers medical treatment in the National Penitentiary, and their staff have reported 21 deaths from cholera from Oct. 4-11. Haiti’s previous cholera outbreak began in 2010 and led to 10,000 deaths.
From being detained in dire conditions to now having to rebuild his life in a foreign country, Julney insists that he is paying the price for organizing against ICE.
“I always had a target on my back with ICE because I spoke against them,” Julney said. “ICE is a very racist organization.”
Raising awareness about the plights of detainees
During the three years he spent in ICE detention, Julney aided local campaigns in drawing attention to the difficult day-to-day conditions detainees faced and exposing the abuse and discrimination faced by Black detainees. Immigration detention centers are rife with anti-Black discrimination, according to Melissa Johnson, New York organizer at the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI).
“Once Black immigrants push back on the differences of treatment they are receiving, they are then retaliated against and further ostracized and penalized for challenging violent anti-Black practices,” Johnson said.
Julney said he’d witnessed much of that violence firsthand. On the morning of May 3, 2021, Julney alleges that correctional officers at Bergen County Jail in New Jersey began physically assaulting several detainees, including a 50-year-old Black man, when they did not instantly adhere to their orders.
“They slammed him on his neck and then put their knees on his neck,” Julney said. “At the time it was the George Floyd moment, so we felt like this [was] taking place again, and I moved the officer off him. I asked ICE officers to stop the situation, but they didn’t intervene.”
ICE officers subsequently placed many of the individuals involved in this incident in solitary confinement; notably, every single detainee placed in solitary confinement was Black. This targeted discrimination against Black people in detention isn’t an isolated incident. A 2020 study found that immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean, many of whom are Black, are more likely to be placed in solitary confinement and for a longer period of time—24.74% of solitary confinement cases involve immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean even though they comprise only 3.6% of all ICE detainees.
Julney was placed in solitary confinement for 30 days, a period that overlapped with the holy month of Ramadan when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. Julney says he was not provided a proper meal to break his fast and instead provided one meal daily with tiny portions. These allegations are detailed in a complaint Julney and his attorney filed with the Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) around conditions at Bergen County Jail in New Jersey.
Black immigrants are also disproportionately represented among detained immigrants facing deportation due to criminal grounds, according to a report by BAJI. Julney was incarcerated in 2010 for a robbery and drug-related conviction. After completing his sentence in 2019, he was transferred directly to ICE detention because he lost his legal status after his conviction.
Haddy Gassama, national director of policy and advocacy at UndocuBlack, sees Julney’s experience as a textbook example of how the criminal legal system fuels the deportations of Black immigrants. Gassama sees many cases of Black immigrants who are deported to countries with which they have little to no familiarity. Julney, for example, has no memories of Haiti and does not speak Haitian Creole.
“Black folks tend to live in over-policed communities, face harsher, longer sentences, and in general, the criminal justice system is slated against Black and brown folks,” said Gassama. “The punitive nature of the immigration system provides Black immigrants double punishment.”
Julney’s organizing efforts are an even greater accomplishment within the context of how ICE treats Black detainees. He played a central role in the organizing efforts of Cosecha New Jersey, an autonomous group working for immigration justice. When ICE detained him in New Jersey, Julney earned the trust of other detainees and provided Cosecha organizers with a list of the names of detainees and the contact information of their family members. Laura and other organizers then contacted families so they could join campaigns and protests to fight for the release of their loved ones. They built a community of families who supported each other through the ordeal of having a loved one detained.
“This deportation machine disappears Black people, and we see the holes in our community,” Johnson said. “It’s not just a person and their family; it’s an entire block. It’s a bodega. It’s a church. It’s a community center that loses from the disappearance of that life.”
The cruelty of these systems is clear to Laura. “They don’t give people options to have a second chance at life,” she said. “People are prone to mistakes, and we’re supposed to learn and grow from them, but there’s no growth when it comes to the criminal justice and immigration system.”
Patrick Julney has remained committed to collective action and has participated in hunger strikes with other detainees advocating for their release from ICE detention. These hunger strikes took place as organizers pressured local officials to cease detaining immigrants at local jails. Cosecha and other groups succeeded in their efforts when the state passed legislation preventing new contracts with ICE. Bergen County Jail, where ICE detained Julney, was the last public facility to continue detaining immigrants until local officials voted in late 2021 to cease housing ICE detainees.
Shutting down detention centers is an important part of the long-term strategy to abolish ICE by destroying the infrastructure the agency depends on to detain immigrants. As Bergen County agreed to cease detaining immigrants, Cosecha called on ICE officials to release individuals instead of transferring them to detention centers across the country.
“People could continue with their immigration cases outside [of detention], but of course, ICE didn’t do that because [they will lose money] if they have empty beds,” said Haydi Torres, an undocumented volunteer organizer with Cosecha, referring to the fact that the agency secures funding based on the total bed count in detention centers across the country.
Julney argues that ICE’s decision to transfer detainees is a “weapon” for the agency because it separates them from their loved ones and support network.
“When someone complains, suddenly there is paperwork, and they are gone in the middle of the night,” Julney wrote in a Medium article. “The constant fear that I could be next is a deliberate part of what I can only call terror tactics.”
Despite this fear, Julney called for the release of detainees in a public letter to New Jersey Sens. Cory Booker and Robert Menendez and on WNYC radio. Still, his fears came to fruition when he was one of the last detainees remaining at the jail. While a few individuals were released and authorities transferred others to detention centers for their continued detention, Julney was transferred to the Alexandria Staging Facility in Louisiana, where detainees are sent prior to their deportation.
“We see this as a reprisal because Patrick was targeted because of his willingness to speak up,” Johnson said.
Detained in Haiti’s largest prison
Once he was deported to Haiti, Julney shared a cell with approximately 40 other men and relied on Laura to send money to family friends so they could, in turn, drop off essentials like food and clean water to those in the penitentiary. However, Haiti is currently struggling with political instability, gang violence, and fuel shortages impeding daily life. The violence around the prison meant that relatives sometimes could not drop off supplies, leaving Julney and others unable to eat. From January to April, 54 individuals died in Haitian prisons due to malnutrition, according to a UN Security Council Report.
“I find a little corner to rest at around 10 or 11 at night, and by 5 or 5:30 a.m. I have to be up from that corner,” Julney told Prism when he was incarcerated. “I’ve been going two months without my medication now. I drink like two cups of water throughout the day.”
A 2021 UN Human Rights Office report determined that inhumane conditions in Haitian prisons constitute torture, citing many of the conditions Julney faced, including a lack of space to lie down or sleep and the use of buckets in the absence of toilets. In fact, there is no space to rest because Haitian prisons have the second highest occupancy level in the world—454% of its official capacity, according to the Institute for Crime and Justice Policy Research at Birkbeck, University of London.
Even amid squalid conditions, Julney continued to look out for those around him, particularly a small group of about six-to-seven other deportees.
“We stick together,” he said. “We don’t go without eating together, and we put our money together to buy a gallon of clean water.”
Julney says all of the deportees with whom he shared a cell were released, but others remain in the penitentiary.
“There is no clear pattern on what is causing certain releases over others,” said Eleni Bakst, managing attorney at the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition and Julney’s attorney. “While we’re really grateful for the people who have been released, there are still quite a few people left inside.”
“I hope all of us benefit from this fight in the future,” Julney said. “This is beyond me. I hope it pinpoints the strength we have.”
Fighting to free them all
Advocates and lawmakers are calling on the Biden administration to cease deportations to Haiti due to safety concerns. DHS has acknowledged in internal documents that deportees “may face harm” upon their return to Haiti, and the U.S. has recently sent armored vehicles to assist Haiti’s police. Yet President Joe Biden in his first year deported almost as many Haitians as his three predecessors combined. Gassama sees these policies as the latest iteration of a longstanding legacy of American cruelty toward Haitian immigrants, pointing to the fact that immigration detention centers were first created to hold Haitian migrants in the 1980s. In essence, U.S. immigration and foreign policy toward Haiti are closely intertwined.
“Haiti’s issues don’t occur in some random vacuum—they are the direct result of a lot of U.S. intervention policies, which then destabilize and create chaos in the country creating refugees and asylum-seekers,” says Gassama. Even now, the Biden administration is considering intervening in Haiti despite the widespread opposition of activists inside and outside of Haiti.
Organizers are taking on a multi-pronged strategy. Cosecha has organized rallies in front of the Haitian Consulate in New York, calling on them to release detainees and for the U.S. to allow them to return home to their families. Advocates are also calling on the Haiti Caucus in the House of Representatives to intervene.
In Haiti, Julney is now focused on rebuilding his life.
“I’m breathing better,” he said, “But I feel like the journey has just begun. Being a deportee is hell, and it’s a shame that America doesn’t care the slightest bit.”
Formerly incarcerated deportees in Haiti face widespread stigma. A report from the University of Miami found that authorities and the public treat them as scapegoats, viewing deportees as “dangerous individuals who perpetrate violence in the country.”
Gassama said that Black deportees more broadly are very vulnerable, facing serious mental health issues, including suicidal ideation or attempts.
“You’ve experienced the trauma of being a Black immigrant and the trauma of being jailed in the U.S.,” Gassama said. “Then you’re deported in the dead of night in shackles to a place unfamiliar to you or that you fought so hard to leave, and you’re dropped there with zero resources.”
Nevertheless, Julney remains hopeful. Despite the difficult conditions in the penitentiary, he did not lose hope. He now fights to return to the U.S. while trying to carve out a life amid the instability and danger in Haiti.
“Life has a lot of ups and downs, and it’s cruel, but you never give up because when you’re fighting. You have to remember there’s other people fighting with you,” he said.
Prism is an independent and nonprofit newsroom led by journalists of color. We report from the ground up and at the intersections of injustice.