Before Tuesday, I had never talked to anyone held by that scary new federal agency, the Department of Homeland Security. But then Paramvir Singh Chattwal called.
He said he wants to die.
Chattwal has been in DHS' detention facility at the Manatee County jail since last October. From the moment he got there, he has been fighting to be saved from the very country he once thought would be his refuge.
Chattwal sought political asylum in the United States, saying he had endured threats, torture and detention in his native India. He is a member of the Sikh faith, a minority in India and for years the target of oppression by the Hindu majority. When he was a teenager, Chattwal said, he witnessed the police execution of four other young men. To keep his silence, they detained him. He was beaten, subjected to electric shock, submerged in near-boiling water, burned with cigarettes, hung upside down and left for dead.
Chattwal came to the United States and hired a lawyer for his asylum request in 2000. Bureaucratic failure after failure followed, he said when we talked Tuesday. He said the Immigration and Naturalization Service never told his attorney the date of his asylum hearing. It was held anyway, and when Chattwal failed to show, a deportation order was issued. That order somehow never reached him.
Chattwal said he assumed the asylum process was still going on, and moved around the country, working the odd jobs that illegal immigrants often take - in hotels, a convenience store. He even worked as a stable hand. Years passed. He took a Florida vacation and was caught speeding in Venice. When police ran a check on his name, his deportation order popped up. He was promptly sent to Homeland Security's Bradenton detention center.
Chattwal's case has been taken up by the Florida Center for Survivors of Torture and Refugee Services in Clearwater as well as Amnesty International USA. They want to know why the government is so bent on deporting Chattwal, despite the fact that he's no danger to anybody, and certainly not a security threat.
He never has had a hearing on his asylum request at which he was present. One judge ordered the case reopened, only to have another judge close it.
The Canadian government offered to take in Chattwal, but the Department of Homeland Security said no.
The prospect of returning to India has plunged him into despair. He thinks of killing himself in jail.
"If you have the choice of being tortured and killed and ending your own life, what would you choose?" he said when we spoke by phone. "I don't think I can go through it again. People accused of crime in this country get a trial ... What wrong did I do?"
The Department of Homeland Security, working through a smaller agency called Immigration and Customs Enforcement, has taken over the duties of INS. The new agency has a chilling name: ICE. It has shown Chattwal no mercy. An agency spokesperson wouldn't explain to the St. Petersburg Times why he isn't being allowed to go to Canada. Chattwal said he never heard about his asylum hearing, but the agency said he had his chance, didn't appear, and the law has been followed.
He lost there and has lost since.
Chattwal lost for what may be the last time Tuesday, when a federal appeals court refused to stop his deportation.
When I spoke to him again after the court ruling, he talked through tears. "I'm absolutely devastated," he said. "I just pray God come down and save me or take my life."
The news also stunned the people who have worked on his behalf. "We've tried everything to save this man's life," said Niki L. Kelly from the Florida Center for Survivors of Torture and Refugee Services.
Chattwal said his family has told him authorities will be waiting for him when he gets off the plane in New Dehli and he'll be whisked off to God knows where. He fully expects to never be heard from again.
Such a horror, and yet I'm afraid many people here won't side with Chattwal. In a post 9/11 world, sympathy is in short supply, even though this country was built on being a beacon for people like Chattwal. When we lost our sense of safety did we lose our sense of decency too?